Although for some time, Chinese scientists have been lobbying for a mission to land astronauts on the Moon, during celebrations April 24 for National Space Day came the first announcement of such a plan from a high-level space official. Lt. Gen. Zhang Yulin remarked at a conference celebrating China’s first Space Day that China plans to land astronauts on the Moon by 2036. Zhang is the deputy commander of China’s Manned Space Program, which posted his remarks on its website on April 28. He is also deputy head of the Central Military Commission’s Equipment Development Department.
China must “raise its abilities and use the next 15 to 20 years to realize manned lunar exploration goals,” Zhang said, “and take a firm step for the Chinese people in breaking ground in the utilization of space.” He also noted that the project would, more broadly, support the scientific and technological development of the country. Zhang’s comments follow President Xi Jinping’s Space Day comments that his “China Dream” is tied to China’s “Space Dream.”
Pang Zhihao, of the China Academy of Space Technology, described the challenges for China’s space program to carry out such a lunar landing. First, a heavy-lift launch vehicle, on the order of the Saturn V Moon rocket, has to be designed, developed, man-rated, and tested. “To send our astronauts to the Moon, we will need a mighty rocket capable of lifting a payload of at least 100 metric tons into low Earth orbit,” he explained. “That is why our scientists have begun to develop the Long March 9.” This new vehicle is expected to have a payload capacity of 130 metric tons, and be ready to fly around 2030. A new crew capsule, larger and more capable than the Earth-orbital Shenzhou craft, will have to be developed. Creating new space suits, appropriate for walking on the Moon, is underway, and techniques for descent to the lunar surface, a soft landing, and the ability to launch from the lunar surface and to rendezvous and dock with an orbiter for the trip home, all are required.
China’s ongoing projects are laying the basis for the manned lunar mission, officials have stressed. The rendezvous and docking missions in Earth orbit with the Shenzhou capsules have laid the foundation for the more demanding lunar-orbit rendezvous needed for the manned mission. Next year’s Chang’e-5 mission, to return lunar samples to Earth, will demonstrate the high-velocity Earth return that the lunar manned mission will require. Similarly, the landing of Chang’e-3 and its companion Yutu rover on the Moon, was good practice for extraterrestrial landing techniques.
Over the next 15 to 20 years, Zhang said, all of these capabilities will be developed.