China launched its first lunar mission today, beginning its gambit to be the third country to put a man in space. The Chang'e-I probe fired into space unmanned, but the lunar orbiter should earn China’s space program respect—and lucrative contracts, Bloomberg reports. China next plans to land a lunar rover in 2012 and astronauts in 2020.
The Chang’e, named for a moon-dwelling Chinese deity with a pet rabbit, will orbit the moon for a year, creating 3D maps of its surface. “If they can have a successful expedition to the moon, then they can attract contracts for other satellite launches,” said one professor. That’s crucial for the program, which has one-tenth NASA's budget.