BEIJING (Reuters) - China is making "preliminary" preparations to send a man to the moon, state media cited a senior space official as saying, the latest goal in China's ambitious lunar exploration program.
China in 2003 became the third country to put a man in space with its own rocket after the former Soviet Union and the United States.
It has touted its plans for moon exploration and in late 2013 completed the first lunar "soft landing" since 1976 with the Chang'e-3 craft and its Jade Rabbit rover.
The country also plans to land the first probe ever on the dark side of the moon in 2018, another milestone.
Yang Liwei, deputy director general of China Manned Space Agency and China's first man in space, said it will "not take long" for the manned mission to the moon to get official approval and funding, state news agency Xinhua said late on Tuesday.
The report gave no other details, but such a trip could still be many years off.
A government official said last year that China wants to put astronauts on the moon by 2036, in what state media said was the country's first confirmation of a manned lunar exploration program.
Advancing China's space program is a priority for Beijing, with President Xi Jinping calling for the country to establish itself as a space power.
China insists its program is for peaceful purposes, but the U.S. Defense Department has highlighted China's increasing space capabilities, saying it is pursuing activities aimed to prevent adversaries from using space-based assets in a crisis.
Apart from its civilian ambitions, Beijing has tested anti-satellite missiles, and the U.S. Congress has banned NASA from engaging in cooperation with its Chinese counterpart due to security concerns.
China's space budget is still only about one-tenth of the United States' outlays, officials have said. According to Chinese state media, China spends about $2 billion a year on its space program, though details are vague.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Michael Perry