updated 10/12/2006 8:16:13 AM ET 2006-10-12T12:16:13

China may one day offer trips into space for tourists, a senior official said on Thursday, outlining the country's plans to launch more rockets, explore the moon and even help farmers by using satellite transmissions.

Sun Laiyan, head of the China National Space Administration, also defended the cost of the space program, saying Beijing spent far less than the United States, it benefited ordinary people and was anyway a matter of national pride.

In 2003, China became only the third country — after the United States and the former Soviet Union — to launch a man into space aboard its own rocket. In October 2005, it sent two men into orbit and plans a space walk by 2008.

"The success of our manned space missions, becoming only the third country in the world to put a man into space on our own, is a source of pride for the Chinese nation," Sun told a news conference to launch a white paper on the next five years of the space program.

Next year China plans to send a probe to orbit the moon, laying the way for a possible manned mission further down the road, Sun said, though he would not provide a timetable.

Sending up tourists, like Iranian-American telecom billionaire Anousheh Ansari who paid $20 million for a stay on the International Space Station, is another option China could go for, Sun said.

"Once our technology is more mature, more reliable, there is this possibility. Not only male tourists, but female too," he said.

Sun defended the billions of dollars China -- a developing country where millions still struggle to clothe and feed themselves -- earmarks for space exploration.

China will next year spend only a tenth of the $17 billion NASA has budgeted for the same timeframe, he said.

The first stage of China's lunar exploration plan will cost just slightly more than 1 billion yuan ($126.4 million).

Money well spent, Sun said. "We think that China's space program can solve many economic and social problems that we are now facing," he said.

He pointed out that before 1984, when there were no Chinese television broadcasting satellites, it would take more than a week for remote parts of China like Yunnan province to get television news shipped in.

Chinese satellites also help with weather forecasting and sending seeds into space has helped breed better, faster maturing crops, Sun said.

Chinese farmers' would also be helped by beaming educational radio and television programs into their houses, he added.

The white paper, while short on specific targets, left no doubt the government also thought space exploration something to be proud of, showing how far China has come since late leader Mao Zedong said the country could not even launch a potato.

"China considers the development of its space industry as a strategic way to enhance its economic, scientific, technological and national defense strength, as well as a cohesive force for the unity of the Chinese people, in order to rejuvenate China."

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