China is working to develop a new spaceship that can both fly in low-Earth orbit and land on the moon.
Their announcement comes shortly after the US announced plans to fly two private citizens around the Moon by late 2018, under private aerospace company SpaceX.
China’s spacecraft will be designed to be recoverable, with better capacity than other similar spaceships, capable of shuttling multiple crew members. Spaceship engineer Zhang Bainian, who spoke to Science and Technology Daily, compared the planned spacecraft to the NASA and the European Space Agency’s Orion—a spacecraft equipped for a moon landing operation, which they hope will be able to bring astronauts to space by 2023.
Despite joining the space race fairly recently (their first crewed mission was in 2003), China’s achievements have firmly established the country as a major contender in the field.
In terms of rocket launches, China has already overtaken Russia in volume and is at par with the US, reaching a total of 22. In contrast, Russia, despite having a long-established space program, fell behind with only 17 launches. According to Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, the US could have achieved more if the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket fleet had not been grounded after an explosion in September 2016.
In addition, China’s most recent crewed mission saw two astronauts spend a month aboard the Chinese space station, with plans for a permanently crewed space station to start operations within five years.