The Chinese space community is building momentum for its objective of a manned lunar landing, with the central government approving research on a launcher.

Approval for work on the rocket in the 2011 China Space Activities white paper, presumably covering the five-year plan period to 2016, does not mean that the government has approved a mission to land astronauts on the Moon. But it does mean that preliminary studies already conducted will now move on to more detailed investigations.

The clearest indication that the Chinese space industry has long hoped for a lunar mission is the provision for 10-meter rocket diameters, comparable with those of NASA’s Saturn V, in the infrastructure at the Tianjin manufacturing base. Those plans were mentioned in 2007, even though the base’s main task was building Long March 5 rockets of only 5 meters in diameter.

More recently the industry has revealed that it is studying engines of 300 to 500 metric tons (660,000-1.1 million lb.) of thrust and rockets with combined thrust at liftoff of 3,000 metric tons, not far short of the Saturn V’s.

The current Chinese lunar exploration program is proceeding in careful stages from orbital observation of the Moon to, in the next few years, landing on it, moving rovers about its surface and returning samples to Earth. The separate manned spaceflight program is so far limited to Earth orbit.