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China plans space station for the 2020s, eyes Moon trip

Weary Eagle, leaping Dragon?

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The People's Republic of China has unveiled plans to have a sizeable crewed space station orbiting the Earth by 2020. The Chinese space agency is also looking ahead to a manned Moon mission, though no timetable has been announced for this.

Flight International reports today on the Chinese announcements, made at the International Astronautical Congress underway at the moment in South Korea.

The magazine quotes China's Manned Space Engineering programme deputy general designer Wang Zhonggui as stating that the PRC plans to assemble its space station from three modules sent up separately aboard Long March 5 booster stacks. It would remain operational throughout the 2020s, and would follow on from a smaller orbital laboratory project set to launch in 2015.

As to the moon plans, Zhonggui was reportedly cautious, saying that concept studies were underway but that no firm schedule had been set.

"The Moon is still far away for our technology," he told Flight, noting that NASA's mighty Saturn V moon-rockets of yesteryear could put 118 tonnes into low Earth orbit - enough for all the hardware required for a return trip to the Moon. By contrast the Long March 5, planned to launch from 2015, will be able to loft only 20 tonnes.

Even so, if the plans announced today come to fruition, China alone will come close to matching the combined manned-space efforts of the rest of the world. Until recently, the International Space Station - a collaboration between most of the world's advanced space-faring nations - had a crew of only three, and even now its complement is just six. China could apparently have a three-person orbital presence within six years.

America has plans to return to the Moon, and establish manned bases there, too. But these are currently mired in budget difficulties, and with the imminent retirement of the Space Shuttle, the USA will soon have no manned space capability of its own at all.

China's Moon plans may be vague, but at least the PRC will retain the ability to travel in space - and given NASA's funding problems, it's hard to say that US lunar ambitions are much more solid.

In recent times, Brits ambitious to travel in space have often tended to become US citizens and join NASA. Several have managed to become astronauts in this way. It just could be that space-happy Brits - at least those not choosing to try for a spot with the ESA - may soon start emigrating to China.

The Flight report is here, and a supplement with pictures from Korea here. ®

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