Mission is planned for December, if successful will deliver on 2006 promise four years early

While Mars remains the next major milestone in man's exploration of the final frontier, there's a brewing space race over Earth's largest satellite, the Moon.  The Moon was last visited by mankind in 1972 and only one country -- the United States -- has ever succeeded in a manned Moon mission.  But that could soon change.

I. Rover Program is Ahead of 

In an announcement to state media Wednesday; Chinese officials revealed they hoped to land a lunar probe on the Moon by the end of the year.  Named after a mythical Chinese goddess who legend had it lived on a palace on the Moon, Chang,e-3 will be China's third lunar effort.  It marks the Asian nation's first major effort to make a soft landing -- a crucial precursor to manned exploration and colonization.

A Lunar rover would be another huge milestone for China's space program.  Today, the "Lunar club" of those who sent a probe to the moon (a crash lander or orbiter) is relatively large and includes China, the U.S., the European Union, Japan, India, and Russia.  But a soft landing is a far tougher target.  Only two countries -- the U.S. and Russia -- at the height of their Cold War era prowess managed to land a Lunar rover.  Russia required 21 launches, including 11 failed lander launches, before it accomplished a soft landing with Luna 9.  

Lunokhod 1
Only two countries -- Russia and the U.S. have accomplished soft Lunar landings (Lunokhod 1 rover pictured). [Image Source: Unknown]

China is trying to achieve a soft landing in only 3 launches; and its efforts may be as much as three years ahead of schedule.  So how did it get here?

After early efforts in the 1960s that were ultimately mothballed, China returned to the arena of space exploration in the 90s under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the leader who came to define the future face of modern China.  While Mr. Deng will be remembered most for the way he reintroduced capitalism to China and blended it with the country's communist traditions, his space drive holds a special legacy of its own.

Chinese space explorers
Chinese space explorers are known as "Taikonauts". [Image Source: AFP]

Introduced near the end of his 14-year administration, the mission continued unheralded by the Western world after Mr. Deng's 1992 retirement and death in 1997.  Two years later, China tested a space capsule designed dubbed Shenzhou 1 (shenzhou is roughly translated to "divine craft") -- launched aboard a Long March 2F heavy space rocket.  Then in 2003 PLA Major General Yang Liwei became the first Taikonaut as China launched him in a 21-hour orbit in a capsule launched with a Shenzhou 5 rocket.

II. Doubters Abounded

In 2006, China boldly proclaimed that it would send a lunar rover to the Moon's surface by 2017 and send Taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) to the Moon by 2024.  Oft underestimated by the West, many scoffed at what seemed a fantastic claim at the time; others still made derisive comments dismissing the goal as "60 years late”.

After its first manned mission in 2003, China announced in 2006 that it would put men on the moon in two decades. [Image Source: NPR]

But a few, like DailyTech blogger Michael Asher, took China seriously.  Michael wrote:

Honestly, I'm surprised China didn't set a sooner target, given the amount of resources they're pumping into missile and astronautical development. A moon shoot is tremendous national prestige....and, if they decide to leave a base there, a very valuable military, political, and economic asset. 

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) -- which in 1990 had crashed landed a crude probe on the Moon -- also kicked off 2006 with bold Moon mission claims of its own, saying it would send men on the Moon by 2030.  China's critics crowed and chuckled when JAXA pulled the plug on its troubled Moon bid a year later.  Japan has since revisited the plans, and managed to send a successful multi-probe mission named SELENE to the Moon in 2007.

III.  China Sees Two Successful Moon Shots

Not long before China's claim the U.S. announced it would be returning to the Moon with the Orion mission, a proclamation that was much cheered.  But not so long after the U.S. perhaps saw the writing on the wall as well, admitting in 2007 that the Chinese would likely reach the Moon before NASA's return (The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration).  Many were startled by that assessment.

That same year marked China's first major Lunar milestone, successfully launched an orbiter -- Chang'e 1 -- which mapped out the soil on the Lunar surface.

Chang'e 1
Chang'e 1 orbited the Moon for over a year before being directed into a controlled crash.
[Image Source: China Daily]

The success stoked other countries to kick of bold Moon shots of their own.  In 2007 Russia -- the only other nation besides the U.S. to accomplish a soft-landing on the moon -- announced plans of its own to finally send a manned mission to the Moon.  The goal of that mission is a 2025 manned landing.  That objective may prove impossible, as the Russian space program has suffered budget cuts similar to those endured by NASA.

Also that year South Korea announced plans to launch a Lunar probe by 2020.  Even Iran claimed it was headed to the Moon.

China isn't the only young tech power to see proven success.  In 2008 India sent a Lunar probe that intentionally crash landed into the Lunar surface.  China in Mar. 2009 accomplished its own successful Lunar impact.  While China may leap ahead if its Lunar rover mission succeeds later this year, India plans to catch up with a rover of its own in 2016.  India is aiming to land men on the moon by 2020, however that target may be overambitious as the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), India's space agency, has yet achieve manned spaceflight, which China has been successfully doing for a decade now.

IV. A New Space Superpower

Today China's space program is thriving.  Since the 2003 first launch China has sent seven other taikonauts, including two women, into space aboard four Shenzhou missions, the most recent of which was launched in June.  Shenzhou 6 (2005), the second manned mission introduced multiple crewmembers and an extended multi-day orbit.  Shenzhou 7 (2008) marked the first Chinese spacewalk.  Shenzhou 9 launched last year and successfully docked with China's first space station -- Tiangong-1 -- which it launched in 2011.

In short, what little doubt their might have been about China's ability to conquer any space objective that mankind has thus far achieved is today all but erased.  Today when China says it will land a rover by the year's end most believe it.

China Shenzhou
China's Long March rockets have achieved increasing success rates, as manned missions have become a yearly occurence. [Image Source: AFP]

The moment of truth -- the launch and landing -- still lie ahead and undetermined.  If China is successful, it will be four years ahead of its ambitious space program goals and one step closer to establishing a Moon colony.  Those plans are boosted by recent discoveries affirming that there is indeed water on the moon, which could be used not only for drinking, but as a source for other crucial chemicals like hydrogen peroxide and rocket fuel (e.g. H2/O2 pure diatomic gases).  Recent surveys also hinted at rich deposits of mercury, gold, and silver igniting fresh interest in Lunar mining.

The race to "conquer" the Moon and its resources is officially on.  Despite falling behind China, the U.S. is still dreaming big and wants a moon base of its own in the coming decades.  And it recently enlisted a bit of help.  Intriguingly this help -- and much of China's Lunar competition -- comes not from a slew of space capable world powers -- India, Russia, Japan, Iran, the European Union, and the U.S. government -- but from private sector dreamers.

V. Private Sector May Rise to Compete With China

While NASA is still testing some potential tools for use in a Moon mission -- such as the "Mighty Eagle" autonomous lander/hovering testbed -- NASA is increasingly leaning on the private space industry to deliver on its own ambitions of Lunar dominance.  NASA has contracted Bigelow Aerospace to develop a potential Moon base design.  

NASA's budget
NASA's budget has been on a downward tilt. [Image Source: NASA]

Meanwhile SpaceX -- the private aerospace startup founded by Tesla Motors Inc. (TSLACEO Elon Musk -- is carrying out tests winding up to a mid-2015 manned launch of its DragonRider capsule, which is capable of carrying up to 7 astronauts into space.  SpaceX -- which already upset doubters by establishing itself as a major commercial satellite and cargo rocket provider -- has promised a "per seat" cost of $20M USD, versus the current $63M USD per astronaut fee the U.S. is paying Russia for use of the aging Soyuz capsules.  SpaceX is expected to unveil the second-generation Dragon capsule later this year, a design capable of soft landings on the Moon or Mars.

Among the other promising projects are the OpenLuna project, which aims to use open source philosophy to design and launch lunar probes, landers, manned spaceships, and even a Moon colony.  That project's first launch test will be a nano-satellite launch in 2014.

Also on the radar is the Shackleton Energy Comp., a Texas startup that hopes to send a Lunar rover to the moon by 2016 and a manned mission by the next decade.  CEO Bill Stone, a famous cave explorer, tried in 2011 to raise $1.2M USD in seed funding via RocketHub, but only raised $5,517 USD in crowdsourced funding.  That's alarming given that Mr. Stone previously stated his company needed $25B USD to achieve manned missions and profitability.  Of course he might have better luck getting funding from bigger crowdsourcing sites like IndieGogo or Kickstarter.

Space X Moon Base
Elon Musk's SpaceX is among the private firms targeting a Moon mission.
[Image Source: Project Sword]

Another entrant is The Golden Spike Comp., whose staff of former politicians and NASA scientists lends it some name credibility.  The company aims to mine the Moon and is budgeting $7B to $8B USD to achieve initial launch capability, followed by $1.5B USD for a two-person Moon mission.  The company has been contracting Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC) to co-design and evaluate a potential Lunar lander design.

Then there's the $20M USD Lunar X-Prize, sponsored by Google Inc. (GOOG).  So far 26 teams are currently vying for that money (8 have dropped out).  The contest launched in 2007.  So far the most promising entrants have been Asociatia Romana pentru Cosmonautica si Aeronautica (ARCA) -- which completed a pair of successful test launches, including an atmospheric manned flight -- and Moon Express (MoonEx) a startup backed by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who tested the Lunar Test Vehicle (LTV).  And then there's Astrobotic, another startup, who has paired with SpaceX to launch a probe to drill on the Lunar probes in Oct. 2015.  A semi-completed lander  was unveiled in Oct. 2012.

Source: AFP on Google

"It seems as though my state-funded math degree has failed me. Let the lashings commence." -- DailyTech Editor-in-Chief Kristopher Kubicki

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