The deputy commander of the Chinese manned space programme, Lieutenant General Zhang Yulin, has suggested that China will send astronauts to the Moon no later than 2036, perhaps as early as 2030.
A manned Chinese moonshot will depend in large part on the successful development and manufacture of the heavy lift Long March 9 space launch vehicle by 2030. The Long March 9 is expected to weigh 3,000 tonnes, be over 100 metres tall, and be able to lift a payload of up to 130 tonnes to the Moon and beyond.
China has already mastered many of the capabilities and techniques required to conduct a manned Moon landing, having sent astronauts to space on a regular basis since 2003, conducted extravehicular space walks and in-orbit rendezvous’, and has sent and operated probes and rovers to and on the Moon.
The notion that China could send astronauts to the Moon in a 15-20 year timeframe is not beyond the realms of impossibility. The Chinese government, however, has not yet authorized a manned mission to the Moon.
Dean Cheng, a Senior Research Fellow and an expert on Chinese space issues at the Washington, DC, think-tank The Heritage Foundation, said that the Chinese government is due to announce its space priorities for the next five years soon, “We’ve been waiting for a new space white paper, which usually comes out aligned with the new five year plan. That, in turn, usually provides insight into major current plans, within the current five year plan, and then rough orders for future plans. So, if this were in a space white paper, that would mean it was very serious.”
Mr. Cheng noted, however, that Lt. Gen. Yulin’s suggestion that China might send astronauts to the Moon is significant since, “[A]s it is, with the deputy commander of the manned space program making such statements on the record, it’s obviously something that is being discussed. However, that doesn’t quite make it a firm commitment.”
China has firm goals in space exploration and manned spaceflight, and has demonstrated an ability to achieve them, even if, as Mr. Cheng points out, “[T]he Chinese are not in a space race. They are not in a rush, and don’t need to be first to the Moon, ahead of the US or anyone else. So, they can take their time and try to cover all possible areas of technical risk.”
As an example, the Chinese first announced their intention to put an astronaut in space in early 1992, but did not achieve that goal until 11 years later in 2003.
Given the technical challenges, as well as the complexities of sending humans to the Moon and bringing them back safely, it should be expected that a similarly long timeframe elapse before Beijing actually conducts a mission.
The Heritage Foundation’s Mr. Cheng also suggests that China may wait until its proposed space station is operational and use that as a staging post for astronauts on their way to the lunar surface, “with the Chinese space station projected to come on-line in 2020, maybe later, then projecting another decade of tests of both launch vehicles and lunar mission modules makes sense.”
Should China officially commit itself to putting astronauts on the Moon, and then successfully achieve that goal, it would be a significant political achievement for Beijing, and would also reflect well on its international reputation. Mr. Cheng explained that such an achievement would, “reaffirm the accomplishments of the Chinese Communist Party, no minor issue in an era of declining economic growth. It also raises China to a par with the United States, and ahead of Russia, Europe, and Japan, as one of only two states to reach the Moon with a manned probe.”
“It builds China’s reputation technologically,” said Mr. Cheng. “This is great advertising for Chinese companies, suggesting that they are moving up the value chain, and rivaling other technological producers. This is important also in terms of quality and intellectual property—we got there through our efforts, not by stealing other people’s technology. We got there safely, so Chinese products are high quality and safe.”
The suggestion that China might send astronauts to the Moon is also of significance to Iran, since Tehran has publicly discussed the possibility of sending an Iranian not only into space, but also to the Moon. Further, it is believed that Iran and China have been in discussions about Iranian participation in the Chinese space station.
For Heritage’s Dean Cheng, such discussions make sense from a Chinese perspective, saying, “I would expect the Chinese to open their space station to international participation. In this case, that would mean allowing foreign astronauts aboard – not the creation of an international space station. I would fully expect the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization [APSCO] members to be among the first non-Chinese aboard, although more likely Pakistani than Iranian. But since Iran is a full member of APSCO, and is currently chairman of its council, it could easily be among the first few foreigners to go up.”
But would China eventually take an Iranian astronaut to the Moon?
Mr. Cheng is skeptical, but does not dismiss the possibility, “Iranian participation in a lunar mission… may be more problematic. It’s certainly possible, the Chinese always try to make their space firsts a bigger deal: longer, more complex, than other people’s comparable firsts. So, Yang Liwei, China’s first astronaut, was in space longer than Yuri Gagarin’s or Alan Shepherd’s initial flights… their first manned lunar mission will probably be longer, or involve more people. Alternatively, it could be the first multinational mission to the Moon.”
*Correction: the original version of this article stated that the Long March 9 space launch vehicle will weigh approximately 30,000 tonnes. This is obviously incorrect, and the article has been updated to state that the Long March 9 will likely weigh 3,000 tonnes.