China plans on sending two rockets for its first crewed lunar landing

China's plans for landing on the moon by 2030 will likely involve a pair of rockets working together to carry out the mission.
John Loeffler
Chinese astronauts on the moon
Chinese astronauts on the moon

3DSculptor / iStock 

China announced plans this week to fly a pair of rockets to the moon by 2030: one carrying the lunar surface lander destined to bring Chinese astronauts to the lunar surface, while another will bring the astronauts themselves.

According to Reuters, an engineer from the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) told Chinese state media on Wednesday that both rockets will achieve lunar orbit independently and, following a successful docking, the astronauts will board the lunar lander to descend onto the surface of the moon.

With this two-launch approach, China is attempting to work around a significant technological challenge it is facing in its burgeoning space program: the lack of a super heavy-lift, high-capacity rocket like NASA’s Space Launch System or SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. A crewed lunar surface mission would need to be capable of transporting both the human crew and the lunar lander, as well as oxygen, water, equipment, and other essentials for the mission—all of which add weight to the payload being lifted.

By splitting this task into two, the existing Long March 5 rocket, which is classified as a heavy-lift launch vehicle, would be capable of carrying out the two-stage mission, at least in theory. China also has plans for a pair of super heavy-lift rockets, the Long March 9 and Long March 10, which should be able to perform a crewed mission to the moon’s surface in a single launch.

During a summit held in Wuhan, China, Zhang Hailian, the deputy chief engineer at CMSA, explained that once China’s astronauts on the moon fulfill their scientific objectives and gather samples on the lunar surface, the lander will transport the crew back to the orbiting spacecraft. From there, the mission will make its return journey to Earth.

The competition to return humanity to the moon has grown more intense in recent years, with both China and the United States expressing interest in the moon's potential mineral resources. The US is very open about its plans for a permanent base on the moon, which it hopes will serve as a stepping stone for future manned missions to other worlds like Mars.

NASA plans to return astronauts to the moon by 2025, marking the first crewed landing since 1972. China has previously sought to carry out a crewed mission by 2027, but that timeline was pushed back to 2030 earlier this year.

Chinese researchers are actively developing various components to carry out the lunar landing, including the aforementioned Long March super-heavy launch systems, a new-generation crewed spacecraft, a lunar lander, and a crewed lunar rover. There have also been proposals on how to establish permanent bases on the surface.

In 2020, China achieved a significant milestone by successfully bringing back lunar samples from the moon through an unmanned mission, making China just the third nation, following the United States and the Soviet Union, to bring pieces of the moon back to Earth.

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