China sets sights on Moon mission
BEIJING, China (CNN) -- Chinese space scientists, already believed to be preparing for the country's first manned space mission later this year, are setting their sights on the moon.
Plans have been submitted for an initial series of unmanned moon satellites and probes, paving the way for later manned missions, state-owned media reported Monday.
If approved by the government, the first mission could take off within the next two-and-a-half years scientists say.
The planned program, named Chang'e after a Chinese legend about a fairy who flies to the moon, would begin with a lunar orbiter mapping the surface of the moon, Luan Enjie, director of the China National Space Administration, told a conference over the weekend.
The three dimensional imaging and other data gathered by that mission would then go into two subsequent phases of the project involving actual lunar landings of unmanned probes and robotic vehicles.
Some of those landings would be used to collect samples of lunar soil and rock that would be returned to the Earth for study, Luan was quoted as saying.
He said the program would be completed by 2010, after which scientists would be closer to planning for a manned mission to the moon.
The only other country to have put astronauts on the moon was the United States, which ended its Apollo series of manned missions in 1972.
Announcing the lunar mission, Ouyang Ziyuan, the chief scientist heading up the project, said China should not drag its feet in getting the moon program off the ground.
The project is particularly important for China's scientific community given that Earth's nearest neighbor probably holds the key to humanity's future subsistence and development, he was quoted as saying.
Although surrounded by high levels of secrecy, China's first manned mission is widely expected to lift off before the end of this year.
In early January, scientists announced the successful testing of the fourth in a series of capsules designed to carry up to three astronauts into space.
About 14 men, all of them elite flyers from the Chinese air force, are thought to have received training for space flight.
However, their identities, along with the timing of launches and other mission details, have been kept as closely guarded secrets.
A successful manned mission would make China only the third country after Russia and the United States capable of putting humans into space.
China has been investing hundreds of millions of dollars in its space program, which has close connections with the country's military.
The communist leadership in Beijing regards the space effort as a key indicator of China's rapid development and a focus for national pride.
However critics say the program is a waste of money in a country where hundreds of millions of people live below the poverty line, without access to modern health care and education.