The Shenzhou-5 space capsule that carried the first Chinese taikonaut -- their word for astronaut -- Col. Yang Liwei into orbit around the world for 21 hours last month already is as advanced as the Apollo spacecraft that carried 27 U.S. astronauts to and around the moon from December 1968 to December 1972.
Also, China already has established far-reaching plans to build a booster rocket powerful enough to carry Shenzhou and its taikonauts along a circumlunar path. And they are using a design that will be far cheaper and less difficult to build than America's fabled Saturn-5 boosters of 35 years ago.
As reported on the astronautix.com Web site earlier this year, senior Chinese space program officials have appeared unusually divided publicly in their debate about whether to attempt a manned moon mission in 2008.
Last Jan. 4, as reported on astronautix.com, Xu Yansong, a senior official of China's National Space Administration -- Beijing's NASA -- boldly stated, "China will put men into space in the next six months and send a flyby mission to the moon in four years."
In February, Huang Chunping, general director for launch vehicles, agreed: "China has the full capability to send astronauts to the moon."
Then last March, another senior space official, Ouyang Ziyuan, struck a far more cautious note, stating a manned mission to the moon would not be a goal for at least the next decade.
Nevertheless, astronautix.com commented, "A circumlunar flight by 2008 was certainly within Chinese capabilities."
The Shenzhou spacecraft that carried Yang is far more advanced than the first Soviet capsule that propelled cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit in April 1961, or the simple Mercury capsules that lofted America's first astronauts over the next two years. Indeed, Shenzhou has far more in common with the mature Apollo moonships than either of the fledgling craft.
Like Apollo, it can carry three taikonauts, not merely one. And -- of crucial importance for a several-day trip to the moon and back -- it is large enough to carry all the food, water and breathable air a crew of three would need on the half-million mile, roundtrip flight. Also like the Apollos, the Shenzhou contains its own maneuvering engine and an array of solar energy collectors clearly designed for far more ambitious, long-term, deep-space flights.
Obviously, China does not yet have anything like the rocket lifting power that it would need for a lunar mission. The reliable, 190-foot-tall Long March, or Chang Zheng 2, booster rocket, a Chinese development from the reliable old Proton workhorse booster that served the Soviet/Russian space program so well for so long, can lift at least 10 tons of payload into orbit at a time. But it does not have the power escape Earth's gravitational field and send a manned spaceship to the moon.
However, the Chinese again are taking a page out of the game plan of legendary Soviet chief space designer of the 1950s and early '60s, Sergei Korolev, and compensating for their lack of a really big rocket by clustering lots of little ones together.
Already, the Long March 2, like the Proton, bases its lifting power on a cluster of relatively small rocket engines at its base. The proposed Long March 5, on which the Chinese are working, is a mature evolution on this same design, relying again on a cluster of rocket engines -- liquid-propellant, strap-on motors -- at its base to provide the liftoff power needed.
Although the engines involved will be more powerful by far than those on the Long March 2, they will be cautious variations on the earlier design rather than ambitious leaps into entirely new ones.
This approach also appears to fit well with the state of China's industrial-technological base. It does not require enormous leaps ahead and conceptual breakthroughs, either in rocket fuel chemistry or engine design. It relies, however, on China's now very broad industrial base to reliably mass produce the simple, already tried and tested components that will be required.
The first versions of the Long March 5 are expected to be operable by 2008. Respected analyst Mark Wade, writing on astronautix.com, has noted China may well have the heavy lift version of the Long March 5 available by 2010.
"This would be capable of direct launch toward the moon of a Shenzhou spacecraft equipped with the additional propellants required to insert itself into lunar orbit, conduct mapping or survey missions, and then boost itself out of lunar orbit for a return to Earth," Wade wrote.
Even before the Long March 5 is available, Wade noted, China could launch two missions into Earth orbit on smaller, already available, Long March 2 workhorse boosters like the one that put Yang into orbit. The first would carry a manned Shenzhou spacecraft. The second would carry "a restartable Lox (liquid oxygen-powered)/LH2 rocket stage, which would be attached by the astronauts to their spacecraft to power its translunar trajectory," he wrote.
The spacewalk abilities required to achieve this already are routine. They were pioneered by the famous Gemini-Agena rocket docking achievements of the 1965-66 U.S. Gemini program.
China's lunar ambitions, therefore, have nothing to do with science fiction. They are an exercise in proven capabilities and science fact.