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NASA: Chinese May Be Next To Reach Moon

July 16, 2008

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said China might be the next nation to complete a manned mission to the moon. And while NASA has plans to use its new Orion spacecraft to follow up on its 1972 Apollo 17 manned lunar mission, it may very well be the case that Chinese astronauts will be the next to reach the moon.

“Certainly it is possible that if China wants to put people on the Moon, and if it wishes to do so before the United States, it certainly can. As a matter of technical capability, it absolutely can,”  Dr. Griffin told BBC News.

In 2003, China became the third country to launch a person into orbit. But authorities say the nation has no plan to send people to the moon, and have even expressed doubt that such a mission would be possible by 2020.

But China’s National Space Administration (CNSA) chief Sun Laiyan told journalists last year that a lunar mission was all but inevitable.

“I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t say if it matters or not. That would just be an opinion and I don’t want to air an opinion in an area that I’m not qualified to discuss,”  Dr. Griffin said, referring to the importance of which nation reached the Moon next.

However, some in the space industry believe that America’s long-held dominance in space exploration is slipping away.  A report by consulting firm Futron found other countries were expanding their space capabilities at a remarkable rate, “threatening US space leadership”.

Over the last five years China has completed two manned missions into space. The initial mission, in 2003, launched “yuhangyuan” (astronaut) Yang Liwei into orbit for 21 hours on board the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft.

On the second mission aboard the Shenzhou 6, two astronauts spent nearly five days in orbit.   Another future manned mission is planned for October, shortly after the Beijing Summer Olympic Games.

Dr Griffin said the China and the U.S. were taking preliminary steps towards collaborative efforts in space exploration.

“We do have some early co-operative initiatives that we are trying to put in place with China, mostly centered around scientific enterprises. I think that’s a great place to start,” he told BBC News.

“I think we’re always better off if we can find areas where we can collaborate rather than quarrel. I would remind your [audience] that the first US-Soviet human co-operation took place in 1975, virtually at the height of the Cold War.”

“And it led, 18 years later, to discussions about an International Space Station (ISS) program in which we’re now involved.”

Although India’s space program is not as large as China’s, it is nevertheless making significant progress. The country will launch its Chandrayaan unmanned Moon probe later this year, and has also announced plans for a manned mission.

Since becoming NASA’s administrator in 2005, Dr Griffin has led the implementation of President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, which has the goal of  returning Americans to the Moon by 2020, and then on to Mars.

Dr Griffin has led the agency’s efforts to complete construction of the ISS prior to the retirement of the space shuttle in 2010. However, the Orion spacecraft and Ares rockets, the shuttle’s replacements, will not be operational until 2015, leaving a five-year gap during which no spacecraft will be available to reach the space station.

Last year, Dr Griffin told Congress the gap could be shortened to three years with the injection $2 billion in funding, a request Congress rejected. 

“Even if a new president and a new Congress decided they wanted to shorten the gap between shuttle retirement and Ares and Orion deployment, at this point with water over the dam, even if they were substantially increasing our funding, we would be talking about 2014 as the earliest,” Dr. Griffin said.

NASA has provided seed money to some commercial ventures in hopes of spurring development of a manned spacecraft capable of re-supplying the ISS.   The agency also retains the option of purchasing some of the European Space Agency’s ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) resupply craft.

Image Caption: Michel D. Griffin, NASA administrator (NASA)

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