Science and Exploration

China Lays Out Plan to Accelerate Lunar Ambitions

By Blaine Curcio
July 28, 2023
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China Lays Out Plan to Accelerate Lunar Ambitions
CNSA Director Zhang Kejian with ESA Director Josef Aschbacher in June 2023.
Image credit: CNSA.

China’s lunar program has rapidly evolved into one of the world’s most comprehensive and impressive. As recently as 2007, China had precisely zero physical contact with the Moon, but this has changed markedly over these past 15 years. As the China Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) has sent mission after mission to the Moon, the country’s lunar ambitions have only grown. Over the past two years, this has accelerated, chiefly with the announcement of the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), a joint megaproject with Russia, and more recently, major announcements about China’s crewed lunar ambitions.

Background on China’s lunar program

CLEP began in 2004, and China’s first lunar mission, the Chang’e-1 orbiter, was launched in 2007. China’s first lunar lander and rover came with the Chang’e-3 mission, launched in 2013, which was quickly followed by a second lander and rover, Chang’e-4, launched in 2018. CLEP took a major step forward in 2020 with the launch of Chang’e-5, a lunar sample return mission that successfully came back to Earth with 1,731 grams of lunar samples.

Chang’e-5 made China only the third nation after the United States and the USSR to bring back samples from the Moon, and remarkably, was the first lunar sample-return mission since the USSR’s Luna 24 mission in 1976. Chang’e-5 was a major turning point for lunar exploration (and arguably space in general) in China, in that there was a huge outpouring of national pride and support for the flawless execution of such a technically challenging mission.

In the heady aftermath of Chang’e-5, China made its biggest lunar-related announcement to date. In June 2021, some six months after the return of Chang’e-5, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and Russia’s Roscosmos announced the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), in a joint press conference on the sidelines of the GLEX 2021 conference in Saint Petersburg. The ILRS is a long-term lunar exploration program with three phases:

  1. Reconnaissance (2021-2025)
  2. Construction (2026-2035)
  3. Utilization (2036 and beyond)

Initially, Chinese media (and others) speculated that the project might attract certain Western countries as participants, which represented a major power shift in the global space exploration landscape. In the months that followed, however, Russia unilaterally invaded Ukraine, which effectively put an end to the prospects of any significant Western involvement. In the months after the invasion, there was speculation in some circles that China might be better off abandoning Russia altogether for this project, but in the  roughly 18 months since the invasion, this has not materialized, and indeed China has seemingly reiterated its support for Russian partnership.

In short, China has developed an impressive lunar exploration program to now, and the past couple of years have seen a marked increase in the scale of these ambitions. It is one thing to send a rover, or a lander, or even a sample-return mission to the Moon. It is quite another thing to build a long-term human presence on the Moon via an ILRS. And the past few months have seen China building on these ambitions, using the ILRS and its lunar program more broadly to court foreign partners, and putting a stake in the ground with regard to a crewed lunar mission before 2030.

Shaping the Moon’s human future

The past few months have seen a number of announcements from Chinese leadership upping the stakes for their lunar program. These announcements have accelerated the timeline for China’s crewed lunar program, and also represented a marked increase in the amount of international cooperation and involvement expected to be included in China’s lunar activities.

At the ninth China Commercial Aerospace Forum (CCAF), held in Wuhan on July 12-13, we saw the first official indication of a crewed lunar mission before 2030, this coming during a presentation by China Manned Space Agency Deputy Chief Engineer Zhang Hailian. This crewed mission would require two of the yet-to-debut LM-10 rockets, one with the lunar lander and one with the next-generation crewed spacecraft (NGCS, to debut around 2027-2028 according to a recent speech by China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei). The two spacecraft would rendezvous in lunar orbit, with two astronauts entering the lander and descending to the lunar surface and a third staying with the spacecraft. With around two hours on the lunar surface, the two astronauts would perform a science mission before ascending back to the NGCS. This first crewed lunar mission would involve three Chinese astronauts, but it would nevertheless be a very important step in leveraging crewed lunar activity as an enabler of international cooperation, with crewmembers from other countries potentially joining future missions.

On 18 July, Venezuela officially joined the ILRS, with CNSA Administrator Zhang Kejian and Venezuelan Minister of Science & Technology Gabriela Jiménez Ramírez signing a joint declaration. The official announcement with Venezuela came about a month after unconfirmed reports in Chinese media source Takungpao which noted that Russia, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) signed agreements to join the ILRS, while also noting that negotiations were ongoing with 10 other countries and organizations. And last, but not least, on June 8, the directors of CNSA (aforementioned Zhang Kejian), ESA (Josef Aschbacher), and CNES (Philippe Baptiste) met in Paris to discuss lunar exploration. The trifecta signed two memorandums of understanding (MoUs) covering a negative ion tester developed by ESA and a radon detector developed by CNES. Both instruments will be carried on the Chang’e-6 mission, scheduled to launch in 2024.

Overall, China’s lunar activities are clearly becoming more substantial, and future crewed missions will only accelerate this trend.

Long-term plans

The past few months have also seen increased visibility towards China’s long-term lunar plans. Some slides released in May 2023 showed plans for five ILRS missions to be implemented during the early 2030s, realizing the second phase of the ILRS and adding important supporting infrastructure such as the Queqiao comms/satnav/remote sensing constellation.

In July, we saw the news that CMSA was mulling a lunar mobile laboratory that could be used for uncrewed science missions, but could also host astronauts for short-term stays. At the same time, CMSA also called for proposals for scientific payloads that China’s crewed and uncrewed lunar landers will bring to the lunar surface between 2025 and 2030, with the call being open to research institutes, universities, SOEs, and most notably, commercial companies.


China’s lunar activity today is undeniably impressive, with the country having sent a lunar sample-return mission a couple of years ago, and in the near-term planning missions like Chang’e-6, -7, and -8. The activity is even more impressive when considering as recently as 15 years ago, China had effectively no lunar activity underway.

With that said, if we think about what China’s lunar activity might look like in 15 years, it is an even more impressive prospect, even if not all deadlines are met and not all missions are 100 percent successful. The ILRS will be in full swing, with multiple crewed missions having taken place. Probably, a foreign astronaut will have been sent to the moon by a Chinese rocket by the late 2030s. In an optimistic scenario, China would have a substantial sustained presence, with a lab, rovers, and landers being controlled by people on the moon and back on Earth.

In any case, at its current rate, China is going to play a major role in determining human activity on the moon in the coming decades and beyond. This will undoubtedly have ramifications for the space sector, science and technology, and lunar-related research, and will also likely have an impact on the geopolitical balance of power. It may be too soon to say there’s a new race to the Moon going on, but it’s sure starting to look like it.

Blaine Curcio

Blaine Curcio is the leading Chinese space industry analyst, having been based in Greater China since 2011, and having been working in the space and satcom sector since 2010. He is founder of Hong Kong-based Orbital Gateway Consulting, a research and consulting firm focused on the Chinese space sector, and is Affiliate Senior Consultant at Euroconsult, a leading space industry consulting firm.