msnbc.com news services
updated 6/19/2006 10:10:53 PM ET 2006-06-20T02:10:53

A top official in China's space program has set 2024 for the country's first moonwalk, a Hong Kong newspaper reported Monday.

The mission would kick off in earnest next year, the Beijing-backed Wen Wei Po paper said, when China launches an unmanned 2-ton lunar satellite in March or April to orbit and survey the lunar surface.

China's mission plan calls for a robotic explorer to set down on the moon's surface in 2017, Long Lehao, vice director of China's lunar program, was quoted as saying. Manned missions would bring the plan to a climax with the 2024 landing and moonwalk, the newspaper said.

"China now basically possesses the technology, materials and the economic strength" to put a man on the moon, Long was quoted as saying.

China has come a long way since then-paramount leader Mao Zedong lamented in 1957 — the year the Soviet Union put the first ever man-made object into orbit — that the country was incapable even of putting a potato into space.

In 2003, China became only the third country — after the United States and Soviet Union — to launch a man into space aboard its own rocket. Last October, it sent two men into orbit.

This report includes information from Reuters and The Associated Press.

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