China plans lunar landing, Mars expedition

Wednesday, October 4th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BEIJING (AP) _ China's budding space program plans to explore the moon for commercially useful resources and hopes one day to take part in an international expedition to Mars, members of the secretive program said Wednesday.

Speeches at a bland forum by the head of the State Aerospace Bureau and a key researcher gave rare glimpses into the military-dominated program.

Although details were few, the experts made one thing clear: China sees manned space flight as key to securing its international stature and economic survival.

``If China since the 1960s had not had the atomic bomb and hydrogen bomb nor launched its own satellites, China would not be regarded as an influential, powerful country,'' bureau director Luan Enjie told the audience of foreign dignitaries and school children at the start of U.N.-declared ``World Space Week.''

Started in the 1970s, the Chinese space program successfully tested a spacecraft for manned exploration, putting the unmanned Shenzhou, or ``Sacred Vessel,'' in orbit last November.

China hopes to send astronauts aloft, joining the United States and Russia as the only nations with domestic manned space programs.

Previous state media reports indicated a second test-flight could come before the year's end and a manned mission may soon follow. Luan revealed little about a timetable, saying only that manned missions will follow ``successful flights of the unmanned experimental spacecraft.''

But he was more specific about the program's long-term goals: ``We will conduct exploration of the moon and actively join international activities for Mars exploration.''

Zhuang Fenggan, a rocket scientist and vice chairman of the China Association of Sciences, added that one day the moon may house permanent ports for spacecraft and astronauts may find fluids there that can generate electricity on Earth.

Flights of fancy aside, both said the Chinese space program would yield short-term practical economic and military benefits. Among the spinoffs, Luan said, will be a new generation of rockets and the marketing of Chinese-made communications satellites to foreign clients.

Helping to realize those plans, Luan said, was an integrated nationwide web of skilled scientists, technicians and managers.

China's manned space program, given the secret designation Project 921, has gathered momentum in recent years, getting help from a more experienced Russia and bigger budgets from a government eager not to fall further behind the West. The exact size and scale of the program are unknown.

Sketchy state media accounts said a batch of Chinese astronauts _ or what some have dubbed taikonauts from the Chinese word for space _ were recently sent to Russia for training. At least two other Chinese previously underwent the training.