When America sent men to the moon 40 years ago, it achieved a strategic goal, a goal that was as much about America's image as it was about science. It was to beat its archrival, the Soviet Union, in the space race. Though the moon has been conquered, it still fires the imagination in places like China and India. We have reports from both places this morning. First, we'll go to China, which in 2003 became the third nation after the U.S. and the Soviet Union to put a man in space. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, China may be a latecomer, but it has big plans.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

ANTHONY KUHN: China completed the first phase of its Lunar Exploration Program two years ago when it successfully launched the Chang'e 1 lunar orbiter.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of rocket engine)

KUHN: Beginning next year, China will launch two spacecraft, which will dock to form a small space lab.

Around three years from now, China will make its first unmanned mission to the moon's surface.

Ouyang Ziyuan is the lead scientist with China's Lunar Exploration Program.

Dr. OUYANG ZIYUAN (Lead Scientist, China's Lunar Exploration Program): (Through Translator) We will achieve a moon landing. We plan to have a landing module and a moon rover jointly explore the moon. The moon rover will be China's most advanced robot so far.

KUHN: No date has been set for putting Chinese astronauts on the moon. Chinese scientists predict that might not happen until the second or third decade of this century.

First, China has to solve problems of propulsion, communication and automation that the U.S. figured out years ago.

Beijing University space expert Jiao Weixin points out, for example, that the Saturn V rocket that lifted the Apollo 11 into orbit could carry a payload of more than 120 tons. By contrast, China's next-generation Long March 5 rocket will only be able to carry about 25 tons.

Mr. JIAO WEIXIN (Space Expert, Beijing University): (Through Translator) This rocket of ours won't be in use until around 2017. That means that after half a century, our rocket's lifting capacity will barely equal the spare change from that of the American rocket. So in the near term, we won't be giving the U.S. any competition.

KUHN: Ouyang Ziyuan says that the aim of China's space program is clear: to advance the country's economic and scientific development. He says the Chinese military's role in the space program has been minor. But that role has worried some foreign countries, especially after China conducted an anti-satellite missile test two years ago.

Besides, says Ouyang, much has changed since the U.S.'s Apollo missions.

Dr. OUYANG: (Through Translator) This is different from the first high tide of space exploration. That was a struggle for hegemony, based on the needs of the Cold War. But now, countries are exploring the moon because they believe it can be exploited and used to support the Earth's development.

KUHN: Ouyang advocates eventually mining the moon for minerals such as titanium and for potential nuclear fuels such as helium-3. He says that the moon holds about a million tons of helium-3.

Dr. OUYANG: (Through Translator) We could meet the whole world's energy needs with a hundred tons of helium-3 a year. That means we could supply the Earth with enough energy for 10,000 years.

KUHN: As for other long-range plans, China's National Space Administration has announced that by mid-century, China could begin deep space exploration, including an eventual mission to Mars.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from