Griffin departs NASA predicting 2015 Chinese Moon mission

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China could attempt a manned circumlunar flight in 2015, says outgoing NASA administrator Michael Griffin.

Griffin, a George Bush appointee whose job ended upon Barack Obama's inauguration, was addressing NASA employees and was asked about the likelihood of the Chinese going to the Moon - and whether that could encourage the US government to increase NASA's funding.

Declining to comment on agency funding, Griffin said he could envisage a Chinese Moon mission by 2016 that uses the country's new Arianespace Ariane 5-like Long March 5 rocket in a double-launch scenario. This would see China send a manned Shenzhou spacecraft with an improved lunar return-capable heatshield and an Earth departure stage into low Earth orbit on separate rockets. They would dock in LEO and the Earth departure stage would send the Shenzhou round the Moon.

China achieved its third successful manned mission, Shenzhou-7, in September 2008, which included its first spacewalk. China expects to fly Shenzhou-8 by 2012 and dock it with a free-flying research module called Tiangong-1.

Griffin also said of a Chinese circumlunar flight: "They have previously demonstrated dual launch processing capability. Technically they will be able to do [a circumlunar mission]. Whether they will choose to do it or not depends upon the goals of their political leadership."

China's publicly stated Moon plan involves only robotic exploration. So far the Chinese programme has emulated the Soviet Union's space efforts and the Russians have helped China with technology and training. Russia has never sent cosmonauts to the Moon.

Griffin's term of office ends on 20 January and deputy administrator Shana Dale left the agency on 17 January. The next NASA administrator has not been named by the incoming Barack Obama administration, and under US government agency succession rules the acting head of the agency will be the present associate administrator, Christopher Scolese. He was appointed NASA chief engineer by Griffin in September 2005 and started work for NASA in 1987.