HELSINKI — A top Chinese space official has called for the country to speed up its plans to develop lunar infrastructure or miss out on a never-to-be-repeated opportunity.

Yang Mengfei of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the country’s main space contractor, proposed in early March that China seize the opportunity to build lunar infrastructure using capabilities the countries already possess.

“Now is the critical time for space infrastructure to expand to the Earth-moon system,” Yang said, according to a CASC statement.

“At present, the United States, Europe, and Japan have proposed relevant plans for Earth-moon space infrastructure, but they have not yet entered the stage of on-orbit construction,” Yang said.

“For our country, it is now a key opportunity to seize the opportunity and lead the Earth-moon space industrial market. It will have a great impact and far-reaching significance.” 

Yang stressed that in terms of the industrial market, China faces a critical moment and an opportunity that will “never come again”.

Yang stated that China has, “not clearly put forward a unified plan for the development of Earth-moon system infrastructure,” noting weaknesses in top-level planning, resources and developing the nation’s aerospace industry.

He suggests China seize the opportunity to carry out the Earth-Moon space infrastructure planning as soon as possible, including communication, navigation, monitoring and other services, cultivating new pillar industries and building a China-led international cooperation platform.

This would contribute to China’s national strength, and promote a community for a shared future of humanity, according to CASC.

The statement noted that the moon offers “rich material resources and unique environmental resources” and that its development and utilization will greatly promote the “national economy and people’s livelihood, and will become a new pillar of the national economy in the future,” according to machine translation.

Yang, who is chief commander and chief designer of the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission, was making the proposal as a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) National Committee during the country’s annual political sessions in Beijing in early March. The CPPCC serves as an advisory body to the central government.

The moon is becoming a focal point for space faring nations’ plans for exploration, science and potentially competition over resources, according to observers, with China already active.

China is the only nation to have soft-landed on the moon in the 21st Century, including a first-ever landing on the far side with the aid of a relay satellite. It has also revealed plans and sought partners for an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) in partnership with Russia in the 2030s.

The United States is meanwhile leading a group of space actors through the Artemis program and the Artemis Accords, to which 23 countries have signed up. 

In a further illustration of the new and diverse interest in the moon, a commercial Japanese lander is currently in lunar orbit, preparing for a landing attempt around late April.

China has already completed major lunar exploration, high-resolution Earth observation, Beidou positioning and navigation and space station projects. These have laid a good foundation in terms of management, technology, materials and talent for subsequent, large-scale Earth-moon exploration and development, according to Yang.

The government has approved plans for the multi-spacecraft Chang’e-7 and Chang’e-8 lunar south pole missions for the coming years. These include landers, rovers, orbiters, water-ice-hunting hopping craft, in-situ resource utilization tests and support from relay satellites. The missions are precursors to the ILRS.

China however faces a series of challenges when planning and building its lunar infrastructure. 

CASC’s Long March 9 super heavy-lift launcher—which would enable major space and lunar infrastructure missions—is being redesigned in order to be reusable. This however will likely delay the debut flight of the rocket into the 2030s.

In the diplomatic arena, it is reported that cooperation with the United Arab Emirates to send a small rover on the Chang’e-7 mission has fallen through due to complications posed by the U.S. government’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). 

Its main partner Russia meanwhile faces widespread international isolation in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine, which could severely impact the country’s space sector through sanctions, supply chains and deterioration of budgets and willing partners.

Yang’s proposal is not the first time a CASC official has made a call for a lunar megaproject. In recent years CASC’s Bao Weimin has called for the creation of an Earth-moon space economic zone, claiming that it could create $10 trillion in annual economic benefit for China by 2050.

Yang’s proposal will, as part of the CPPCC process, be one of thousands made this year across all areas. 

Previously, space officials Ye Peijian and Wu Weiren have proposed Mars missions and the setting up of a national laboratory for deep space exploration when members of the CPPCC. 

These were realized in the Tianwen-1 orbiter and rover mission which launched in 2020 and the Deep Space Exploration Laboratory (DSEL), established in 2022. The Earth-moon system proposition is however on the order of a megaproject and requires vast resources.

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...