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Chinese space official lays out ambitions

During a rare U.S. visit, a top Chinese space official describes China's ambitious exploration plans, including robotic moon missions starting next year.
/ Source: Reuters

A top Chinese space official visiting the United States has laid out his country's ambitious exploration plans, starting with a lunar flyby next year.

Beyond the moon missions, including a flight to collect and return lunar samples to Earth in 2017, the Chinese space agency plans to develop a nonpolluting launch vehicle that can lift 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons) into orbit by 2010, said Luo Ge, a vice administrator at the Chinese National Space Administration.

"Space is a high-risk investment," Luo said Monday through a translator at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "China as a developing country is limited and constrained by its funding for more ambitious programs."

Luo said China's total annual investment in space programs is equivalent to $500 million, but he said this was a rough figure, "not like NASA figures."

NASA's proposed budget for fiscal 2007 is $16.8 billion.

The Chinese space agency envisions a "constellation" of eight satellites to monitor global disasters, and another satellite that would watch Earth's magnetic fields as a possible predictor of earthquakes, Luo said.

Luo headed a delegation that visited NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and said he had a discussion with the U.S. space agency's administrator, Michael Griffin. Later, a NASA spokesman said Luo met with Michael O'Brien, the agency's associate administrator, not with Griffin.

Is U.S. becoming more ‘closed’?
Describing his meeting, Luo said he talked about how open the United States was on his first visit in 1980.

"At that time I found the U.S. was very open, and in the 1990s and now, it's the other way around," he said. "I think one country, if it's open, is going to have progress, and if it's closed, then it's going to be left behind."

Luo said that in the 1950s and 1970s, China was closed and had slow development, "but after the 1980s, we have achieved substantial progress and development, so countries should be open."

China's space program has moved ahead in the last three years, including the launch of two human missions, even as the U.S. shuttle program came to a near-standstill after the fatal 2003 breakup of shuttle Columbia.

Only one shuttle has launched since the Columbia accident, and the same problem of falling debris that led to the Columbia's deadly disintegration recurred on that launch. The next shuttle launch is set for July.

Interest in space station
Luo said China has had 46 consecutive successful launches since 1996, including 23 satellites and six Shenzhou spacecraft, which can carry astronauts.

China's moon exploration program includes a lunar flyby in 2007, a soft landing in 2012 and a return of lunar samples by 2017, Luo said.

He said China has cooperated on space programs with Europe, Nigeria, Venezuela, Russia and Brazil, among others. Asked if China was looking for cooperation with the United States and other nations on the international space station, Luo replied, "We have always been interested; we don't have a ticket yet."