As well as missions to the moon, including a flight to collect and return lunar samples to Earth in 2017, the Chinese space agency plans to develop a non-polluting launch vehicle that can lift 55,000 pounds (25,000 kg) into orbit by 2010.

Luo Ge, a vice administrator at the Chinese National Space Administration, said China's total annual investment in space programmes is equivalent to $500 million, but he said this was a rough figure, "not like NASA figures".

The Chinese space agency envisages a "constellation" of eight satellites to monitor global disasters, and another satellite that would watch the Earth's magnetic fields as a possible predictor of earthquakes, he said.

Potential threat

Luo headed a delegation that visited NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre and had a discussion with the US space agency's chief, Michael Griffin.

Describing his meeting with Griffin, Luo said he talked about how open the United States was on his first visit in 1980.

"Now, it's the other way around," he said through an interpreter at the privately-run Centre for Strategic International Studies, after the meeting.

"A developing country is limited and constrained by its funding for  more ambitious programmes"

Luo Ge,
Chinese National Space Administration

The Pentagon has publicly said it considers China's space  programme a potential threat to the satellite systems so crucial to US military supremacy, a concern shared by many US politicians and decision makers.

"I think a country, if it's open, is going to have progress, and  if it's closed, then it's going to be left behind," Luo said.

From 1950 through the 1970s, he said, China was a closed society with a slow rate of development. In the 1980s it began making significant progress, showing it was interested in opening up. Today, he added, "China is very open".

No admission

Asked if China was interested in cooperating with the United  States and other countries in the development of the International  Space Station, Luo said: "We have always been interested, but we  don't have (an admissions) ticket yet."

He also stressed that China was cooperating in space programmes  with Europe, Russia, Brazil, Nigeria and Venezuela.

Space, he said, "is a high-risk investment" and China "as a  developing country is limited and constrained by its funding for  more ambitious programmes".

Their tour comes only two weeks ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao's April 20 visit to Washington.