Neil Armstrong’s 1969 lunar landing marked a pinnacle of US technological achievement, defining what many saw as the American century, but the next person to set foot on the moon will likely be Chinese.
As the United States has scaled back its manned space programme to cut costs — a move strongly criticized by Armstrong, who died on Saturday — Asian nations have aggressively expanded into space exploration.
China, Japan and India all have their own space programs. New Delhi, which envisages its first manned mission in 2016, recently unveiled ambitious plans to launch a space probe that would orbit Mars.
Japan participates in the International Space Station program and launched its first lunar probe in 2007. It is planning a follow-up that it hopes will find “organic substances or minerals containing water” on an asteroid.
But experts say that China, which as recently as the 1980s was focused solely on developing satellites, is the closest to landing an astronaut on the moon.
Beijing launched its manned space program in 1999 and has developed rapidly since, sending its first astronaut into space in 2003 and completing a space walk in 2008.
This year, it conducted its first manned space docking — the latest step towards setting up a space station — during a mission that included its first woman in space.
In its last White Paper on space, China said it was working towards landing a man on the moon — a feat so far only achieved by the United States, most recently in 1972 — although it did not give a time frame.
It will attempt to land an exploratory craft on the moon for the first time in the second half of 2013 and transmit back a survey of the lunar surface.
China’s space program remains far behind that of the United States — as evidenced by the fact that the recent manual space docking trumpeted by Beijing was mastered by the United States in the 1960s.
US President Barack Obama said in 2010 he would drop the costly Constellation space program, killing off future moon exploration.
But the United States is developing a new rocket, and this month landed a rover the size of a car on Mars for a two-year mission to explore the Red Planet for signs it could support life.
Beijing has spent about 39 billion yuan (US$6.1 billion) on its manned space program since it began 20 years ago, state media have said.