(CNN) -- When China's lunar orbiter blasted off last month, there was not a cheer or smile or a "whoo-haaa" to be had in mission control.
Taikonaut Fei Junlong exits the re-entry capsule of China's second manned spacecraft on October 17, 2005.
Perhaps because for the government scientists, it was just another small step in an ambitious space program which could ultimately see a Chinese space station orbiting the Earth, a Chinese moon colony and a joint China-Russia explorer on Mars.
If all goes well, and so far it has, the Chang'e 1 will spend the next year orbiting the moon, mapping the surface and looking for resources. Next, the Chinese hope to send an unmanned rover to the moon by 2012, with a robotic mission to bring back samples by 2017. Officials have recently backpedaled from goals of putting a taikonaut (the Chinese version of an astronaut or cosmonaut) on the moon by 2020, but analysts believe that is still a pressing ambition.
"If China can go to the moon, eventually with a manned program, it will represent the ultimate achievement for China in making itself essentially the second most important space power, accomplishing what even the Soviets had not," says Dean Cheng, a China military analyst for CNA, a private research corporation. Watch China's lunar rocket blast off »
According to Cheng, the Chinese are now embarking on a systematic space program the world has not seen since the 1960's and for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States is facing real competition. That may explain why the head of NASA, Michael Griffin, recently warned that "China will be back on the moon before we are . . . I think when that happens Americans will not like it." China's space milestones »
But there could be a lot more at stake than just lunar boasting rights. It's unlikely the Chinese will land at Tranquility Base and pull down the Stars and Stripes. But the goal could be mining resources. One powerful, potential fuel source is helium-3. Helium-3 originated from the sun and was deposited in the moon's soil by the solar wind. It is estimated there are up to two million tons on the moon, and virtually none on Earth.
"If we can ever get helium-3 and helium-3 to fuse together it is what we call nuclear power without nuclear waste -- there is no radioactivity associated with that reactor," says Professor Gerald Kulcinski, an expert in helium from the University of Wisconsin.
The key though, says Kulcinski, will be developing a fusion reactor, which he says could be done within 15 to 20 years, in tandem with a program to establish a permanent human presence on the moon. Just four tons of helium-3 would be enough to supply all the power needs for the United States for a year, two shuttle payloads according to Kulcinski.
Analysts believe the lure of such potent resources is one of the reasons behind China's exploration of space. State media reported last month details of a new rocket with enough thrust to put a space station into orbit. When it's developed, the Long March 5 will have almost three times the power of existing rockets.
China has long wanted to be part of the international space station, but has always been denied, partly it's believed because of U.S. concerns. But that may not be a problem for the Chinese if they can send their own space station into orbit, reportedly by 2020. But again the Chinese are sending mixed messages, saying no firm date has been decided. More immediately, there are plans a for televised space walk by three taikonauts next year, according to the Shanghai Daily.
At a recent news conference Pei Zhaoyu from China's space administration repeated at least three times that "China has always adhered to the principle of peaceful use of outer space." But he made no mention of China's satellite killer missile which was tested earlier this year, destroying an aging Chinese weather satellite in low Earth orbit.
That and the fact that China's space administration is controlled by the military has many in Washington worried about where the Chinese are heading. Technologically, the Chinese are still behind the United States, but analysts warn that might not be the case for much longer.
"The Chinese have the advantage of a centralized decision-making authority where they can say we will do that and we will apply those funds," says Cheng, while pointing out that NASA is at the mercy of Congress, politics and a new president in 2009 who may have new goals and ambitions.
China has always insisted that it's not in a space race with any country, especially the United States -- but it is on a slow, relentless march to the moon, and beyond. E-mail to a friend
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