China announced plans to expand the “strength and size” of its space program in a new official policy proposal.
China says the country will use space for peaceful purposes like scientific research, but also to guarantee the country’s national security and prestige. The plan would make China the first country to soft land a probe on the far side of the moon by 2018, and the second country to operate a Mars probe by 2020.
“To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is a dream we pursue unremittingly,” states the plan.
If China can successfully land a probe on Mars, it will be the second nation in human history to do so. Both Russian and the European Union have repeatedly failed to operate a probe on Mars. No country besides the U.S. has successfully operated a probe on Mars for longer than 14.5 seconds.
“They’re moving ahead very rapidly,” Morris Jones, an expert on the Chinese space program, told Voice of America. “They have a very impressive human spaceflight capability. They’ve recently completed their longest space mission to date, which was roughly a month. And they’re preparing probes to go to the moon and deeper into space.”
Jones noted that China’s space program is now comparable in size to the European Space Agency of the European Union, and only lags behind NASA.
Since launching its first manned mission in 2003, China has sent up an experimental space station, staged a spacewalk and landed a rover on the moon. The country increased its cooperation in space with Europe and launched its second space station this September.
China intends to invest $2.17 billion into its space program between 2026 and 2030, about three to four times more than the $695 million it spent from 2011 to 2016. The country’s annual space budget will be comparatively less than NASA. The U.S. space agency is spending more on programs not directly related to space exploration.
Experts estimate the full extent of Chinese spending on space research is probably much higher than its stated budget.
“We are at the beginning,” Wu Ji, director-general of China’s National Space Center, told Bloomberg. “But this is a great cause, and nothing should stop China from becoming a power in the space industry.”
Meanwhile, NASA hasn’t launched an astronaut into space since 2011 without the help of the Russians, and has been forced by President Barack Obama to delay Mars missions until 2030.
Experts suspect President-elect Donald Trump’s space program will likely be focused on exploration, launching more robotic probes and sending humans to Mars using money diverted from global warming science programs implemented by Obama.
“NASA should be focused primarily on deep-space activities rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies,” Robert S. Walker and Peter Navarro, both senior advisers to the Trump campaign, wrote in an opinion piece published in SpaceNews. “Human exploration of our entire solar system by the end of this century should be NASA’s focus and goal.”
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