As China prepares to launch its first manned space mission, neighbor India is also gearing up for plans to send a spacecraft to the moon by 2008.
Sending an unmanned spacecraft to the moon to explore its surface has been a dream project for Indian space scientists for many years.
The project moved into top gear after Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee gave it the green signal in an Independence Day speech two months ago.
Mr. Vajpayee said the country is set for another big leap forward in the sphere of science. He said India will send a spacecraft to the moon before 2008, and he named the mission "Moon voyage 1.
The $78 million project envisages putting a 525-kilogram spacecraft about 100 kilometers above the moon to probe its surface through infrared and X-ray pictures.
The spokesman for India's Space Research organization, G. Krishnamurthy, says the project will provide a unique opportunity for "frontier research."
"Basic thing is to map the moon, both physical mapping and chemical mapping of the entire surface of the moon," he said. "So that is the idea - to look for various elements, like magnesium, aluminum, silicon, etc., and also to see the possibility if there is still water in the moon."
This is the first time India will be stepping outside the earth's orbit. So far the country's 35-year-old space program has focused on developing satellites that provide services such as telecommunications and weather forecasting. It has also developed launch vehicles that are able to put smaller satellites into space.
The scientist heading the project to send a spacecraft to the moon, George Joseph, says this will be "the first step" in India's voyage towards other planets.
"This is the first of our extra-terrestrial efforts we are making. And hopefully this will be the beginning," said Mr. Joseph. "We have interest to pursue further to look at the possibility of having a robotic mission, or once that things are done, maybe going even beyond the moon."
Critics are questioning the logic behind the project, saying the accomplishment is outdated. The United States landed men on the moon more than three decades ago. They say the project is simply driven by India's desire to show the world that the country can handle complex space research projects undertaken by the developed world.
Anand Parthasarthy, a scientist who has spent many years working on India's missile program and is now consulting editor for a Hindu newspaper, said that so far, India's civilian space program has met "down-to-earth" goals such as providing vital communication links, but the moon project is aimed at national pride only.
"We must not fritter away previous resources unless there are compelling scientific objectives which are in the national interest," he said. "Being able to say we are the fifth or sixth country which can send a spacecraft into the moon's orbit or even put a person on the moon is not just good enough as an argument any more."
However, other scientists dismiss such arguments, saying the benefits of scientific research are not always immediately apparent.
Mr. Krishnamurthy says the project will help the country develop new technologies that could have many applications.
"This is a very important mission for us," said Mr. Krishnamurthy. "It is having a lot of challenge of taking spacecraft all the way to the moon, inserting it into the lunar orbit, it poses a lot of technical challenges. In that process we will learn a lot of technology also."
The Indian Space Organization has called the mission to the moon "the forerunner of more ambitious planetary missions."
Analysts says that India also has concerns about it keeping technological pace with China and scientists will be watching closely to see how China's first manned space mission fares.