The space agency's administrator, Bill Nelson, has expressed concern that the country's civilian programs launched in the name of science may actually be covert military operations.

Speaking before the House Appropriations Committee to discuss why NASA needs a $25.4 billion budget for 2025, Nelson said, "China has made extraordinary advances, especially in the last 10 years, but they are very, very secretive. We believe that most of their civilian space program is a military program, and I think we are actually in a race, and I have serious doubts that they are planning to establish a permanent manned base on the Moon." 

"My concern is that China will get there first and suddenly say 'okay, this is our territory, you stay out'. Nobody can go in and suddenly declare that the whole area is theirs," Nelson said. 

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Nelson cited as an example the Spratly islands in the South China Sea, a region claimed simultaneously by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines for its rich natural resources.

"I think we need to get there first and continue our exploration for peaceful purposes," Nelson added. 

China has also announced the launch of its own space station, the Tiangong space station, which, like the ISS, will be permanently crewed.