China on track for crewed moon landing by 2030, space official says

HELSINKI — China is on target to reach its goal of putting its astronauts on the moon before the end of the decade, according to the country’s human spaceflight agency.

Officials with the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) provided a rare update on the crewed lunar program during a press conference at Jiuquan spaceport April 24. 

“The program development for major flight products, including the Long March 10 rocket, the Mengzhou crew spacecraft, the lunar lander Lanyue and the lunar landing suits, are all complete,” said Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of CMSEO. “Their prototype production and tests are in full swing.”

Chinese officials previously announced a plan to put a pair of astronauts on the moon before 2030. Two Long March 10 lunar variant rockets will separately launch Mengzhou and three astronauts and the Lanyue lander. The pair will then perform a lunar orbit rendezvous and docking ahead of descent to the lunar surface. Two astronauts will spend six hours on the lunar surface before rejoining their colleague in lunar orbit and returning to Earth. 

“The development of mechanical and thermal test products for the crew spacecraft and lander have been basically completed. Various rocket engines are undergoing hotfire tests, and the Wenchang crewed lunar exploration launch site is under construction,” Lin said.

New launch infrastructure is required to facilitate the missions. This is being built near China’s existing coastal spaceport at Wenchang, Hainan island.

Furthermore, proposals for a “crew lunar rover and lunar surface payloads solicited from the public are under selection,” Lin stated. CMSA announced a call for proposals for a lunar crew rover, potentially using a commercial development model, in May 2023.

Lin added that astronaut training for the mission includes mastering operation of the Mengzhou and Lanyue spacecraft, including in normal and emergency flight conditions. Rendezvous and docking and manually avoiding obstacles during the lander’s descent were noted as part of the training. Other activities include entering and exiting the lander, working in one-sixth of Earth’s gravity, long-range lunar roving, drilling, sampling and other scientific work on the lunar surface.

The crewed lunar landing mission is part of China’s wider plans to establish a robotic and eventually inhabited moon base. The initiative is known as the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).

Lin stated that a human lunar landing is a challenging and innovative scientific and technological project. He said efforts will be made to progress with the development and manufacturing in a coordinated way to fulfill the mission as scheduled.

The U.S. meanwhile is working towards returning humans to the moon with its Artemis 3 mission. That mission, earlier scheduled for late 2025 was officially delayed to no earlier than September 2026 in January this year. A report by the Government Accountability Office in December 2023 concluded that the mission was unlikely to happen before 2027.

The CMSEO press event—held on China’s national space day—was primarily to unveil the crew for the Shenzhou-18 mission. That mission is due to launch at 8:59 a.m. (1259 UTC) April 25, reaching Tiangong space station around 6.5 hours later.

The crew will be commanded by Ye Guangfu, veteran of the 2021 Shenzhou-13 mission. Completing the crew will be former PLA Air Force pilots Li Guangsu and Li Cong. The latter pair will be embarking on their first spaceflight missions.

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