But that plan has failed to gain widespread support, reflecting serious concerns about billions of federal dollars needed to accomplish such a feat and the lack of detail about the most difficult aspects of the mission. The total cost of the program and which asteroid NASA would visit remain unknown.
In a statement, NASA said it welcomes "all countries' peaceful exploration of space, and looks forward to China's public release of the scientific results from the Chang'e 3 mission to the moon."
Gregory Kulacki, a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists who is based in Beijing, said the country is following an agenda that was laid out in the mid-1980s after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution subsided.
"They have very clear goals and a very clear agenda," he said. "The Chinese aren't racing anyone toward achieving those goals. Rather, they would like to be recognized for their contributions to space exploration."
In 2003, China became the third country to send a human into space. The country has already launched 10 astronauts — or "taikonauts" — into outer space and has a test lab in orbit. It hopes to open its own space station in 2020 — the same year that the International Space Station is scheduled to shut down and de-orbit.
The Chinese government is building a 3,000-acre space center on Hainan Island in the South China Sea that will be capable of handling a new, more-powerful line of rockets. When the facility is finished, it will be the country's fourth launch facility.
On Saturday, China became only the third nation to "soft land" on the lunar surface. The other two? The U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Frank Slazer of the Aerospace Industries Assn. trade group, said he expects that many of the exciting things in U.S. spaceflight will be done by private "new" space companies such as Hawthorne rocket maker Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, and British billionaire Richard Branson's space tourism venture Virgin Galactic.
The government has done a good job of helping these firms along but needs to spend more in order to further push technological boundaries and inspire a generation of youth to pursue careers in science and technology, Slazer said.
"We have great aspirations, but we're not adequately funding programs," he said. "If we're not careful, we could take our leadership in space for granted."