Hong Kong (AFP) July 12, 2009
Forty years after the United States landed a man on the moon, China's fledgling space programme is racing to get to the lunar surface before an American return and ahead of its Asian rivals.
The United States -- the only country to have sent men to the moon -- is hoping to touch down on the lunar surface again by 2020, almost a generation after it first completed six historic manned lunar trips between 1969 and 1972.
Meanwhile, after putting its first man into space in 2003 -- the third nation to do so -- China is aiming to launch an unmanned rover on the moon's surface by 2012 and a manned mission to the moon by around 2020.
"China is doing all the things one would need to do in order to go to the moon," Dean Cheng, an expert on China's space programme at the US-based research firm CNA Corp, told AFP.
China further signalled its ambition in September last year when three "taikonauts" on board Shenzhou VII conducted the country's first spacewalk.
It has also announced plans for a space module as a step towards its goal of building a space station, state media reported earlier this year.
And last week China proclaimed it was aiming to put a woman onto the moon.
Yang Liwei, China's first man in space who is now in charge of new recruits for the space programme, told state media the search for the country's first female astronaut was underway.
However Fu Song, vice dean of Tsinghua University's School of Aerospace in Beijing, told AFP he could not see China landing a man on the moon in the next 10 years, and other experts agreed.
Leaving political hostility aside, budgetary constraints have put a brake on China's hopes, said Chan Kwing-lam, director of Center for Space Science Research at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
"I think some people tend to overestimate China's national power. For one thing, this type of mission is extremely expensive," he told AFP.
"For another, China doesn't have the technology and capability yet to land human beings on the moon."
China's space programme is often linked to its recent efforts to enhance its international standing, and the successful missions into orbit have been a huge boost to national pride.
"(The lunar landing) would show that China has fully grown beyond the century of humiliation and become a top-tier country," Cheng said.
Other recent events to have boosted the country's confidence range from topping the gold medal tally at last year's Beijing Olympics to the view that it is leading the world out of the current global financial crisis.
But before China pops any champagne corks, it will have to face off competition from its neighbours.
India's landing of a probe on the moon last year and Japan's launch of its first lunar satellite in June have marked a dramatic step forward for both countries.
All three countries have eyes on a share of the commercial satellite launch business and also see their space programmes as a symbol of international stature and economic development.
But any Asian rivalry is not on the scale of that between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s, which was symbolic of the battle for dominance between competing ideologies.
"If there's competition, the nature is totally different from the Cold War. There's no hostility involved," Fu Song, vice dean of Tsinghua University's School of Aerospace in Beijing, told AFP.
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