Around 40 years have passed since Eugene Cernan left the last human boot print on the surface of the moon. American astronauts have not returned since, and the Soviet Union never bothered to go in the first place. With the exception of the abortive Constellation program backed by President George W. Bush, politicos have put forward little serious discussion of a return to our silvery companion.
Enter China. The Middle Kingdom is determined to go to the big ball of green cheese, and it's willing to spend the cheddar to do it. With this in mind, the China National Space Administration's short-term plan focuses on building an uncrewed system capable of reaching the moon, collecting samples and returning them to Earth.
From 2007-2008, China's first lunar orbiter, Chang'e-1, successfully mapped the lunar surface; Chang'e-2, launched Oct. 1, 2010, tested landing technology for the planned 2013 Chang'e-3 sample-collection mission, and supplied high-resolution imagery of its successor's landing site [sources: CNN; CJSS]. Chang'e-3, sporting China's first robotic lander and rover, is slated for a 2013 launch.
China intends for such missions to prepare the way for later crewed moonshots. If successful, and unchallenged by other space powers, they will establish China as the only nation currently sending human beings to our nearest neighbor. Whether the rest of the world will allow such "lunacy" to go unanswered, out of lack of interest or in the name of other priorities, only time will tell.
More Great Links
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NASA's Opportunity Rover died after operating on Mars for 15 years and accomplishing numerous space explorations. HowStuffWorks says goodbye.