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Expert: China could put a man on the moon by 2024

Effort would begin next sprint, when China sends unmanned satellite to survey lunar surface.

A top official in China's space program has set 2024 for the country's first moonwalk, a Hong Kong newspaper reported on Monday, cementing its position as a new space power.

The mission would kick off in earnest next year, the Beijing-backed Wen Wei Po paper said, when China launches an unmanned lunar satellite in March or April to orbit and survey the lunar surface.

"China now basically possesses the technology, materials and the economic strength" to put a man on the moon, the paper quoted the official as saying.

China has come a long way since then-paramount leader Mao Zedong lamented in 1957--the year the Soviet Union put the first ever man-made object into orbit--that the country was incapable even of putting a potato into space.

In 2003, China became only the third country--after the United States and Soviet Union--to launch a man into space aboard its own rocket. Last October, it sent two men into orbit.

Story Copyright © 2006 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.