On April 25, a Long March 2F rocket briefly lit up the dark desert sky above Jiuquan Spaceport in northwest China, carrying three Shenzhou-18 astronauts to the Tiangong space station. Such missions, including crew handovers, have become remarkably routine for China.

China launched just six crewed missions between 2003—which saw its first with Shenzhou-5, making China only the third country capable of independent human spaceflight—and 2020. It has since launched seven, with the Shenzhou-18 crew taking over from the outgoing Shenzhou-17 crew for a new six-month stint in orbit. Just over a week later, at the Wenchang Space Launch Site on the southern island province of Hainan, a Long March 5 launched Chang’e-6 — a robotic mission designed to collect the first samples from the far side of the moon. While China continues to build human spaceflight experience in low Earth orbit, Chang’e-6 will provide practice and further verification of several critical procedures, including lunar landing, launch from the moon, and rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit. Both missions are integral to a grander plan.


China’s overarching lunar ambitions were on during a press conference last month in Jiuquan, which revealed the Shenzhou-18 mission’s crew just a day ahead of launch—a trait of secrecy likely due to the military running of China’s human spaceflight program. Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO), stated that China was making steady progress on a number of fronts toward a stated goal of putting astronauts on the moon before 2030.

The proposed crewed lunar landing mission involves two in-development Long March 10 rockets launching a crew spacecraft named Mengzhou, which will carry three astronauts, and a lunar lander named Lanyue. The spacecraft will perform a lunar orbit rendezvous and docking, then two astronauts will descend to the moon’s surface. They will spend six hours on the moon, using a rover and collecting samples, before rejoining their colleague in lunar orbit
and returning to Earth.

“The development of mechanical and thermal test products for the crew spacecraft and lander has been basically completed. Various rocket engines are undergoing hot-fire tests, and the Wenchang crewed lunar exploration launch site is under construction,” Lin said.

“The construction of the Wenchang crewed lunar exploration launch site has been fully launched, and the crewed lunar rover and lunar payload programs solicited from the whole society are undergoing competition and selection,” he added. Work on lunar spacesuits is also proceeding.

This was a rare update on the progress of hardware and infrastructure for the mission, though it was unsupported by images or video footage. China’s announcement of a deadline, reminiscent of Kennedy’s “in this decade” declaration, demonstrates confidence from a country typically cautious about publicly committing to such defined goals.


A Chinese crewed lunar mission would have a number of ramifications, not just for China, but the United States and globally.

“A successful crew landing would reflect a high degree of confidence by the Chinese leadership in their deep space capabilities. They would not want to risk a politically embarrassing failure,” Scott Pace, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, told SpaceNews.

“Even a landing attempt, regardless of outcome, would underscore the importance of the international Artemis effort. The United States and its partners should be full participants in human explorations beyond low Earth orbit.”

Domestically, the Chinese Communist Party would bolster its legitimacy by achieving one of the greatest visible technological feats: landing astronauts on the moon. This accomplishment has only been achieved by the United States, which conducted six successful moon landings between 1969 and 1972. “China’s space program serves three main purposes: national social and economic development, national defense, and prestige and great-power competition,” Marc Julienne, director of the Center for Asian Studies at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), told SpaceNews.

“China’s Lunar exploration program aims first and foremost at the latter. Space exploration, and the moon in particular, is one dimension of the U.S.-China strategic competition. Even down on Earth, there is a diplomatic stake between the U.S.-led Artemis Accords and the Chinese-led ILRS, which compete in gathering international partners.”

The ILRS, or International Lunar Research Station, is China’s answer to NASA’s Artemis Program, and is also building a coalition of partners, somewhat analogous to the U.S.-led Artemis Accords diplomatic efforts. Forty-two nations have signed the Artemis Accords since 2020, including nine so far this year. The ILRS has a much smaller roster, with just nine nations joining China and Russia since Venezuela became the first last July.

ILRS was announced in early 2021 as a joint Chinese-Russian effort open to all. However, since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the ILRS has become a clearly China-led endeavor. The initiative envisions constructing an initially robotic lunar base in the 2030s using a super heavy-lift launcher. It will also be visited by crewed missions and eventually be capable of hosting long-term human stays. Precursor missions to the lunar south pole, named Chang’e-7 and Chang’e-8, are scheduled to launch in 2026 and 2028, respectively. Chang’e-8 will test in-situ resource utilization, such as 3D printing bricks from lunar regolith.

Initially, the focus will be on robotic missions. “China has a vision that emphasizes robotic lunar missions while still conducting some crewed missions. This may reflect an assessment that robotic missions are more affordable and sustainable, while acknowledging the prestige that comes from crewed missions,” Pace said.

Unlike Apollo and more in line with NASA’s Artemis Base Camp concept, China’s efforts are intended to be longterm and sustained. Like Artemis, China envisions lunar infrastructure, including a constellation of navigation and communications satellites named Queqiao. The first test satellites arrived in lunar orbit along with Chang’e-6.

Scenarios are now being outlined, incorporating future-focused ideas for human spaceflight.

A paper on the ILRS published in April by the Chinese Society of Astronautics outlines phased plans for establishing a permanent presence on the moon.

The phases are as follows:

Until 2035: This initial phase focuses on mastering basic technologies and engineering solutions necessary for lunar habitation, with an emphasis on resource extraction.

2035 to 2045: During this period, additional substations will be established to build on earlier progress. These substations will provide supplies and living conditions for astronauts, deeply integrating robotic and crewed lunar exploration activities. This phase will also serve as prior experience for subsequent deep space exploration missions, such as those to Mars.

From 2045 onwards: The final phase will concentrate on large-scale resource utilization, including the construction of significant buildings such as lunar factories and laboratories. Tourism is a potential opportunity. Main tasks will include:

  • Autonomous lunar-based production of hydrogen and oxygen liquid propellants.
  • Production of 100% oxygen and water for a 10-person crewed lunar landing.

According to the paper, these stations will form the basis of China’s Earth-moon space economic sphere and position the country as a leader in human deep space exploration activities.

Further out, Chinese space officials and publications have identified human missions to Mars as a long-term goal for around 2050, though there are no specifics.


More immediately, China is looking to expand its presence and activities in low Earth orbit. The three-module Tiangong space station was completed in 2022, and China aims to keep it constantly occupied for at least a decade. In October, it was revealed that China plans to add a multifunctional module to the outpost around 2027, with six new docking ports to accommodate additional modules and visiting spacecraft.

“We will build a 180-ton, six-module assembly in the future,” Zhang Qiao of the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) said in October at the 47th International Astronautical Congress in Baku, Azerbaijan. With each module weighing around 22 tons, an expanded Tiangong would be just over a third of the mass of the roughly 450-metric-ton International Space Station (ISS).

These plans indicate a commitment to human spaceflight in low Earth orbit and support recent claims by China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, now a high-level official at the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO), that Tiangong will soon begin selecting international astronauts to conduct science onboard. A low Earth orbit version of the Mengzhou spacecraft, launched on a single-stick Long March 10, would further enable more diverse crews to an expanded Tiangong, with a capacity of six to seven astronauts compared to the Shenzhou’s limit of three.

China is also looking at commercial and low-cost solutions for supplying Tiangong, echoing and learning from NASA’s commercial cargo initiative that provided a level of support for SpaceX.

The U.S. and Europe are planning solutions to the end of the International Space Station, with the former particularly keen not to see China become the only show in LEO. They are notably looking to commercial actors including Blue Origin, VAST, Voyager Space and others to develop modules and habitats capable of hosting astronauts, science and manufacturing.

But China, too, is looking at new solutions, including inflatable modules similar to those being developed by Sierra Space. An institute under CAST, China’s main spacecraft manufacturer and maker of the Tiangong modules, is exploring inflatable habitats for human spaceflight in LEO and how to get them to Tiangong for testing. Beyond this, their applicability for the ILRS lunar base is also being considered.


Despite globally expanding plans for low Earth orbit, cooperation between China and the West will likely be limited, according to Scott Pace.

“It’s possible to imagine U.S.-China space cooperation that is transparent, reciprocal, and mutually beneficial, such as lunar sample exchanges, biomedical data exchanges, sharing of lunar and Martian space situational awareness data, and international coordination for the use of radio spectrum on and around the moon,” Pace said.

“However, the degree of political trust required for joint human spaceflight operations is not present. Even coordinated scientific missions would be very difficult, if not impossible, under current conditions,” he added.

For now, China and the U.S. appear set on the same destinations with very separate programs and, with few exceptions, different sets of partners. How China’s engagement, task sharing, and rule-setting play out remains to be seen.

“China has repeatedly stated that it is open to international cooperation. However, like the Belt and Road Initiative, space cooperation tends to be on terms solely determined by China,” says Pace. “The nature of these transactional relations results in less long-term influence than more genuine partnerships.”

While it’s been nearly 55 years since the United States won last century’s space race by being the first — and so far only nation — to land astronauts on the moon, the neck-and-neck race to be the first to do so in the 21st century has significant implications.

“The first strategic implication is whether China successfully lands humans on the moon before the United States,” says Julienne. “China’s plan to establish a lunar research station is a long-term goal, but walking on the moon before the Americans would send a strong signal that China has become a space power as capable as the U.S., if not more.”

A U.S. return to the moon with humans is currently scheduled for September 2026, but several issues threaten this timeline, including problems with the Orion spacecraft’s heat shield and concerns that SpaceX’s Starship-derived lander design won’t be ready in time. Furthermore, a Senate Appropriations Committee on May 23 saw NASA Administrator Bill Nelson come under pressure regarding the costs and scheduling of Artemis.

“The response should focus on what the U.S. wants to do, rather than worrying about what China is doing,” says Pace.

“The United States should increase the NASA budget to the level it had at the end of the Cold War “ — adjusted for inflation — “to pay for the transition to LEO platforms after the International Space Station ends by 2030 and execute the initial Artemis missions,” says Pace. “This would mean a NASA budget of about $30 billion versus the $25 billion it has now, or the $27 billion it requested a year ago.”

Meanwhile, China has laid out its space ambitions, reflecting not only technological prowess but also a strategic vision. This appears to have the potential to redefine global space exploration and power dynamics for decades to come.

This article first appeared in the June 2024 issue of SpaceNews Magazine.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...