for National Geographic News
China is counting down toward Friday's launch of its most challenging space mission yet, which is set to include the country's first space walk.
The mission furthers an ambitious space program that plans to build a base on the moon—in cooperation with NASA or not.
The flight of the Shenzhou VII rocket—China's third manned mission—is scheduled to take off not quite a year after Beijing deployed its first spacecraft to map the lunar surface.
"We intend to send astronauts to the moon and ultimately to build a lunar outpost," said Zhang Qingwei, who was until recently a leader of China's manned space program.
Zhang now heads a new corporation that aims to become the Chinese equivalent of Boeing or Airbus.
Zhang said China would be willing to participate in the international lunar outpost designed by NASA. Astronauts are scheduled to begin building that settlement in 2020.
Alternatively, China could assemble its own moon base, he said.
With or Without You
Scientists and scholars at NASA and within the American space community say a debate is being waged over how closely to link up with China on missions to the moon or other celestial destinations.
China currently cooperates with the European Space Agency (ESA) on a global-navigation satellite system and with the Russian Federal Space Agency on everything from astronaut training to a joint robotic mission to Mars, set for 2009.
Zhang, a long-time advocate for closer space ties with the ESA and NASA, acknowledged there are "many political and social differences still dividing us that would have to be overcome" before wider cooperation with the United States could occur.
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