China is serious about its intentions to get to the Moon and its next step is to build a space station.
Not content with the International Space Station (ISS) that's currently orbiting the Earth funded and used by the US, Russia and Europe, China seeks to boost its technical skills and national status. It also plans on using the station as a stepping stone towards a lunar base and eventually mining operations for Helium-3.
Helium-3 can be used as fuel for fusion reactors. Recently, both China and Russia have gone on record with their goals to mine the substance that some experts estimate to have trillions of dollars of value.
The Chinese launch of their Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace), demonstrates how rapidly the Asian giant has moved on its space program. Of course the Chinese were still mired in a rice-driven economy under Mao Tse-tung after their civil war while the Americans and Russians snatched up former Nazi rocket scientists to build their space fleets and ICBM armadas.
"Tiangong-1 is, I think, primarily a technology test-bed," said Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on China's space program at the U.S. Naval War College on Rhode Island, in response to questions by Reuters News Service. "Technically, it has been compared to where the U.S. was during the Gemini program." NASA's Gemini program was the precursor to the Apollo Moon program.
Like Mao's "Great Leap Forward," the authorities in Beijing have successfully utilized their command and control economy to play catch up and are now poised with a new generation of rockets positioning them for a space station and beyond that the Moon.
China has not hidden the fact that they are grooming their burgeoning space launch facility in the Gobi desert to manage future space station operations.
While careful to downplay their expectations for the Heavenly Place program, the Chinese people are excited about their country's future in space and their expectations are high as China closes the gap between the themselves and the current two world superpowers, the US and Russian Federation.
Hard times for US and Russian manned space programs
Both superpowers programs have fallen on hard times during 2011. The US has seen the end of the space shuttle program with nothing to replace it effectively forcing a hiatus in the American manned space program for the first time since the early 1960s.
Meanwhile, Russia's new generation of rockets may have a major engineering flaw. It came to light during late summer 2011 that their heavy lift boosters—designed to carry astronauts and supplies to the 100 billion dollar ISS—might have a breakdown in quality control on the assembly line.
The problem is serious. Both Russia and the US are depending on that rocket design to keep the station in orbit. The situation could become so dire that NASA warned that, if unsolved, the ISS could be lost, plunge into the atmosphere and burn up.
Although China touts its space program as being civilian, world intelligence agencies are aware the Chinese military is deeply involved in its development. This has caused concern both in Moscow and Washington that the Chinese may try to militarize the Moon.
Like the US and Russian space programs, the Chinese program is providing it with massive spin-offs of technological know-how and advancements. Those "Great Leaps Ahead" will be used in both commercial and military applications.
China's future space ambitions are bold and their timeline bolder. It's announced its intention to achieve an unmanned landing of a robotic rover on the lunar surface by the end of 2012.
The target for Chinese astronauts to actually walk on the Moon is sometime after 2020.