BEIJING — China's first moon rover set off slowly Sunday to travel across the right eye of the Man in the Moon, leaving the first wheeled tracks on the moon's surface in nearly 40 years.
No quote emerged to rival "one giant leap for mankind," but with one loud confirmation by mission control — "the probe landed safely" — China established its status Saturday night as the third nation ever to achieve a "soft landing" on the moon.
Two weeks after its launch from southwest China, the Chang'e 3 lunar probe, named after a moon goddess, made a careful descent that was reported live on state television. Only the USA and former Soviet Union have previously made soft landings on the moon, whereby the spacecraft and equipment remain intact and operable.
Further celebrations followed Sunday morning as its major cargo, a solar-powered lunar rover named Jade Rabbit, after the goddess's pet, rolled down a ramp and set off on a three-month mission to hunt for natural resources and conduct geological surveys.
The successful launch marks the next step in an ambitious space program that aims to send an astronaut to the moon and open a permanent space station around 2020. Still, Beijing has yet to confirm specific plans for a manned moon landing.
"They are taking their time with getting to know about how to fly humans into space, how to build space stations … how to explore the solar system, especially the moon and Mars," Peter Bond, consultant editor for Jane's Space Systems and Industry, told the Associated Press. "They are making good strides, and I think over the next 10, 20 years, they'll certainly be rivaling Russia and America in this area and maybe overtaking them in some areas."
On the streets of Beijing, pride in China's slow but steady emergence as a space power was easy to find Sunday.
"It's so great," said schoolboy Wu Jing, 12, who watched news of the landing Sunday morning. "I read about it in science-fiction novels, but it came true."
The space program "makes people proud of our country" and is worth every cent, said Chen Haizhen, 61, a retired worker at a foodstuffs factory.
"Finally we could catch up with the USA in this field, which has been my dream for years," he said.
However, not everyone was as enthusiastic about the program and its cost.
"Solving the people's problems of getting to college, the expense of seeing a doctor, the difficulty of old-age care, and the high price of real estate is more difficult than landing on the moon," Zhao Jianjiang, general manager of a solar technology company in east Suzhou city, wrote on Sina Weibo, China's micro-blogging platform. "All of this (the lunar program) is useless."
Contributing: Sunny Yang