China has declared its intention to land an astronaut on the moon, in the first official confirmation of its aim to go where Americans last set foot nearly 40 years ago.
While Chinese scientists have previously discussed the possibility of a manned lunar mission, a government white paper published on Thursday is the first public government document to enshrine it as a policy goal.
China will “conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing”, the white paper said.
Although a manned moon mission is still some time off – Chinese experts say after 2020 – the statement highlights Beijing’s soaring ambitions just five months after the US retired its space shuttle programme . “Chinese people are the same as people around the world,” Zhang Wei, an official with China’s National Space Administration, said at a briefing. “When looking up at the starry sky, we are full of longing and yearning for the vast universe.”
According to the white paper, which serves as a blueprint for the next five years, China will develop new satellites, accelerate efforts to build a space station and strengthen its research in space. Laying the foundation for a mission to the moon, the government also plans to launch unmanned lunar probes and make “new technological breakthroughs” in human space flights by 2016.
The last time an astronaut set foot on the moon was in December 1972 as part of the US Apollo 17 mission.
George W. Bush, the former US president, had proposed sending people back to the moon. But the huge cost of manned space exploration at a time when the government is struggling to cut its debt compelled his successor, Barack Obama, to halt the programme to replace the shuttle, leaving the US without a vehicle of its own for manned space flights.
Beijing is in a much stronger fiscal position and has eagerly pursued manned space flights, with two possible next year. Its first “taikonaut”, Yang Liwei, ventured into space in 2003.
Earlier this week, Beijing launched a trial operation of its own satellite navigation system, known as Beidou, which will serve as an alternative to the widely-used US Global Positioning System. Officials have said that Beidou will support industries such as fisheries and telecommunications, though analysts say it could also help China target US ships in a military conflict.
China has also made strides in its plans for a space station, with two unmanned spacecraft docking in orbit last month for the first time. The country hopes to complete construction of a permanent space laboratory by 2016.
The white paper is part of Beijing’s efforts to deflect criticism over a lack of transparency and cooperation in its space programme. Along with disclosing broad policy goals, the government maintains it is exploring space for peaceful purposes only and provided a long list of countries that it has worked with on space initiatives, from Britain to Venezuela.