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China reiterates Moon mission plans

A Chinese space official has refuted a Western press report from 10 days ago that alleged that financial considerations had forced China to abandon plans to land astronauts on the Moon.

A Chinese space official has refuted a Western press report from 10 days ago that alleged that financial considerations had forced China to abandon plans to land astronauts on the Moon. That Reuters report from Beijing was widely circulated in the West as evidence that new NASA plans for American astronauts to fly back to the Moon would not be justified as part of some new ‘Space Race’, this time between the U.S. and China.

“Reporting that China has temporarily shelved its plans for a manned lunar landing is completely like ‘shooting an arrow without a target’,” wrote reporter Wu Shan in the May 26edition of  “Qingnian Cankao”, a daily newspaper sponsored by the China Youth League of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee.  This was because although China has three unmanned lunar projects under way, he explained, there has never been any official decision to proceed with a manned landing that could then be cancelled. 

His article titled “Has China’s Lunar Exploration Program Undergone Mysterious Change?” reported that Luan Enjie, chief commander of the lunar orbiting and exploration program, “has already seen the foreign wire report and was in the process of studying how to respond.... “ Luan then provided the newspaper with quotations to be used to refute the original story.

Speech to high school students
Reuters had originally quoted 72-year-old Wang Yongzhi, identified as “the chief designer of  [China’s] space program,” as saying that China was planning to send a probe to orbit the Moon in a few years time. “But contrary to previously announced plans,” the report continued,” [Wang] said the lunar probe would not land a man on the moon.” The cause of this alleged change in plans was “for financial reasons,” the report added.

But the source of this Western press story appears to be a Xinhua News Agency report from the previous day, in which Wang discussed plans for China’s main manned space project, an orbiting space station. “Wang made the remark when delivering a report to some 100 high school students from Beijing, Hong Kong and Macao,” the official press agency story continued.

At the end of the story, Wang is quoted as telling the high school students that “China will also conduct a lunar orbiting program,” referring to previously announced plans for a half-ton satellite named Chang-Er-1, to be launched as early as December 2006. Evidently asked by a student why the probe could not carry an astronaut such as on the flight of Shenzhou-5 last October, Wang replied that such a mission would cost too much for now.

It was an ambiguous translation of this exchange that may have led at least one Western reporter in Beijing to conclude that Wang was announcing the cancellation of all future plans for sending Chinese astronauts to the Moon. Why Wang would have chosen a meeting with high school students to release such a momentous proclamation was never entirely clear in the Reuters report. Nor had there ever been any announced plans for this satellite to carry an astronaut, as Reuters claimed.

The new Chinese refutation of the Reuters report, just released, supports this interpretation as well. While conceding that as yet there is no approved manned lunar landing project for the next 15 years, Wu Shan’s new article quotes Ouyang Ziyuan, member of the [Chinese] Academy [of Sciences] and chief scientist of the Chinese lunar exploration program: “As to whether a manned lunar landing would be incorporated into the plans after 2020, that is something to be considered at a later time.”

“The Chinese people will definitely land on the moon, only not now,” lunar program scientist Ouyang Ziyuan explained. “After our nation completes the unmanned spacecraft lunar exploration mission, we will study development plans for manned lunar landings and choose an opportunity to implement manned lunar landing and exploration as well as cooperation with relevant countries in the joint construction of a lunar base.” 

Wu Shan also quotes Ran Luyang of the news center of the Commission of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense, as telling him that Ran’s center “has not released any information on adjustments in the manned aerospace program and the lunar exploration program.”  Zhuang Fenggan, member of the [Chinese] Academy [of Sciences] and director of the Science and Technology Commission of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, also told the newspaper that he has not heard of impending changes to the lunar exploration program.  Zhuang has been involved in the early stages of planning work for China’s lunar exploration program.

Flight testing
The new article quoted Luan Enjie, chief commander of China’s lunar exploration program, as explaining why a manned landing program was premature: “We still do not have a rocket that can allow someone to return,” he said. Added Ouyang, “We do not have a rocket that big.” Even a rocket capable of placing a manned spacecraft into lunar orbit has not yet been flight tested, although such a booster -- called the long March 5-500 --s now being developed for launching heavy commercial communications satellites.

Once such a rocket has proven itself over the next four to six years, the feasibility of manned lunar orbital flight can be assessed. And Western observers realize that such a Chinese vehicle could also visit other interesting regions of Earth-moon space including various lagrangian points where combinations of Earth and Moon gravity, or Earth and Sun gravity, creates stable regions. These are important as locations for science satellites, Earth observations, and as gateways to flight beyond Earth-Moon, into interplanetary space.

In any case, Chinese space officials wanted to make it clear that the original Western reports -- despite their widespread acceptance in the world press -- were false, and that China had no intention of turning its back on the Moon and on the prospect of someday sending its astronauts there.