WASHINGTON — Here's one Olympic-style event that China is likely to win: landing the next humans on the moon.
Chinese astronauts are on schedule to beat the United States back to the moon by two or three years, the head of NASA's lunar exploration program said Wednesday.
``If they keep on the path they're on, they can" land before Americans do, said Rick Gilbreth, NASA's associate administrator for exploration systems.
The goal of NASA's Constellation program is to return astronauts to the moon by 2020, as proposed in President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration. Gilbreth said the Chinese could accomplish that by 2017 or 2018.
The Chinese lead will be even longer if the American schedule slips, as some space experts predict.
Beating the U.S. back to the moon would be a feather in a resurgent China's cap with psychological as well as military implications. Last year, China became the first nation in the world to shoot down a space satellite, setting off alarm bells in the Pentagon. Some defense analysts foresee a long-range competition between the U.S. and China for future military control of space.
America is still far ahead of China in space. The Chinese are aiming to duplicate a feat that this country accomplished almost 40 years ago. The first two Apollo astronauts landed on the moon in 1969, when Richard Nixon was in the White House.
In addition, NASA's back-to-the-moon program is substantially bolder than China's.
``They're taking an Apollo-like approach,'' Gilbreth said. ``Our program is much more ambitious than Apollo. We're going to put four people on the moon for seven days, eventually for six months. China is looking for a minimum capability. We're looking to put an outpost on the moon.''
He called China's space program ``very impressive,'' but said, ``We're not in a race. We're going for the long haul.''
China's interest in space dates to the 1950s. It sent up its first satellite in 1970, lofted its first astronaut into space in 2003 and launched a mission to orbit the moon in 2007.
Russia has landed robots on the moon but not humans.
NASA's new Lunar Reconnaissance Orbit is scheduled to launch this November. The first unmanned test flight of Orion, the next lunar lander, won't come until 2015.
As for the 2020 target for U.S. astronauts to land on the moon, a blue-ribbon panel of space experts recently expressed doubt that the timetable will be met.
``Human missions to the moon by the year 2020 ... are exceedingly unlikely,'' Kathryn Thornton, a member of the panel and a University of Virginia engineering professor, told the House Science Committee on April 3.