China is going to send men to the Moon on 2036 – is it only ambitious goal or possible objective ?

After unveiling plans of planned for 2018 launch of first module of new Chinese space station with possibility of permanent habitation, we have another sign that China is not abandoning plans for becoming world leader in space exploration and probably space station is not objective but only mean for ultimate goal. According to China Daily, which is refers to anonymous source close to Chinese space program, CNSA is seriously considering manned mission to the Moon already in 2036. It is sign how consequently developed is Chinese Moon program. Since first Change probe launched in 2007 for Moon surface mapping, through Change 2 in 2010 for additional more detailed mapping, until soft landing of Change 3 with Moon rover – China is continuously developing its technology to send man to the Moon (even between Change-1 and Change-2 difference was impressive. Change-1 spent on journey to Moon orbit 12 days but Change-2 managed to reach Moon in 5 days). Ultimate goal for Chinese Moon exploration program was always manned mission. Confirmation of Chinese plans should be words of Lieutenant General Zhang Yulin (since 2011 Deputy Director of the PLA General Armaments Department) that China will need 15 to 20 years to land on the Moon. This time should be well used – to send spacecraft with crew CNSA will need heavy rocket, which still is not finished. Long March 9 is still under development by CAST (China Academy of Space Technology) and according to news from January 2016 by China News Service, first launch of the Long March 9 (with LEO payload capacity of 130 t) is planned not earlier than 2030.  Chinese engineers will come face to face with new challenges like designing space suits for Moon exploration, designing soft landing spacecraft with optional lunar rover for making exploration easier or (what is obviously) designing spacecraft which will manage to give enough space and comfort for crew members during this very difficult mission. According to China Daily, Pang Zhihao, researcher of human space activity at the China Academy of Space Technology in Beijing, claims that these steps are crucial for future Moon landing:

“The United States accomplished its manned lunar missions because it had the powerful Saturn V, while the former Soviet Union failed because its N1 rocket wasn’t up to the task… To send our astronauts to the moon, we will need a mighty rocket capable of lifting a payload of at least 100 metric tons into low Earth orbit. That is why our scientists have begun to develop the Long March 9.”

For this moment we know that development of Long March 9 is still in early phase, but still no details about Moon spacecraft were unveiled. According to Pang Zhihao, Moon spacecraft will be able to perform docking in space and to softly land on the Moon. It means that spacecraft will land on Moon surface with utilization of engines (what is necessary for soft landing) and return. Adding possibility of docking means that spacecraft could dock to future Tianhe space station. It means that it will be possible that Moon spacecraft will not return with crew directly to Earth. Astronauts could simply dock to Tianhe and use Shenzhou spacecraft for returning to Earth. Moon spacecraft could be used couple times after refueling and service performed in space. This idea also gives ability for reducing mass of moon spacecraft, because it won’t need Thermal Protection System which is necessary during reentry. This is quite possible, especially if we remind words of Lieutenant General Zhang Yulin from March 7, 2016. Zhang Yulin announced for Xinhua news agency that China needs to explore earth-moon space:

“The future of China’s manned space program, is not a moon landing, which is quite simple, or even the manned Mars program which remains difficult, but continual exploration the earth-moon space with ever developing technology.”

If we combine these facts it seems that China has reasonable plan for Moon exploration – establishing space station as transfer point for crew members, launching moon spacecraft and docking it to space station, next flight to the Moon with spacecraft from space station and return from the Moon to space station; next return to Earth and keeping moon spacecraft docked to space station. Such plan has multiple advantages. First, heavy and expensive rocket could be used only once or twice to send to orbit reusable spacecraft. Moon spacecraft will be used multiple times and due the fact that it will not use for reentry it will be fully reusable. In case of problems on the Moon, it will be possible to send another moon spacecraft from space station without wasting time for preparing launch from Earth. This plan has also few drawbacks like following: general cost will be increased for cost of the space station, number of operations like docking, changing crews and undocking will increase number of moments when something could potentially go wrong and fact that this is very ambitious project which will be done for the first time; it is hard at the moment to predict what could possibly go wrong. In the other side most of technologies planned to be utilized during such mission is well known to Chinese space industry.