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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 July, 2004, 15:07 GMT 16:07 UK
China sets out Moon goals
By Richard Black
BBC science correspondent

Yang Liwei, AFP
China's first man in space, Yang Liwei
China aims to send a spacecraft to the Moon in three years' time, the head of the country's space agency, Sun Laiyan, has confirmed to the BBC.

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Sun outlined the next steps China would take in expanding its space efforts.

These included unmanned missions from 2007 to orbit and land on the Moon, and to build a Chinese space station.

Mr Sun said China was happy to work with other nations, including the US, in space but only on an equal footing.

He made his comments to the BBC World Service Discovery programme, in one of the first interviews he has given to the western media since taking up his post as the chief administrator at the China National Space Administration (CNSA) in April.

In the discussion, Mr Sun made no secret of China's ambition to become the next space superpower.

The Moon was a major target, he said, and the first mission should take place before Beijing hosts the Olympic Games in four years' time.

First steps

"First, we'll try to send an unmanned spacecraft there in 2007," he explained.

"That's the first step... [The] second step is to send an unmanned craft to land on the Moon and move around and send back data. [The] 3rd step is taking samples and coming back to Earth. All these [missions] will be unmanned."

Western analysts believe China currently has rockets capable of sending craft to the Moon and back but it would need more powerful boosters for landings.

The next few years will also see more Chinese astronauts, or yuhangyuan, launched into Earth orbit, following the path taken last October by Yang Liwei. Some of these space people will be women.

Shenzhou V capsule

"It's a very important reason for gender equality," Mr Sun said. "We have a lot of excellent female engineers, so if they're fit they could qualify."

The CNSA chief said China was serious about establishing an orbiting space station and laboratory but he gave no timescale.

The US has blocked China from participating in the International Space Station, which may be one reason why China is prepared to build its own.

"This space station was under construction for many years and there were some historical problems," he explained.

"We're willing to communicate and engage with Nasa (the US space agency) but our principle is we should be equal and benefit together. Although China's a developing country, we won't beg."

Mr Sun said he viewed space exploration as a joint venture for the human race.

China is currently engaged in several cooperative missions with European partners and it may be that in deciding to speak to the western media, Mr Sun is indicating a path of greater openness on the part of his agency.

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