President Hu Jintao yesterday put China on par with the few nations capable of distant space travel and said a new epoch had arrived for the nation's ambitious, fast-growing space programme. At a lavish assembly in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Mr Hu, flanked by members of the all-important Politburo Standing Committee, addressed the public for the first time on the success of the nation's first lunar-probe mission, Chang'e I. 'It is another stride towards the world's leading science and technology, a Chinese tribute to the peaceful exploration and use of space,' he said. Mr Hu thanked the people of China, including Hong Kong and Macau, for their generous support for the programme. The lunar programme 'has realised a thousand-year-old Chinese dream. It's a key to open the vault of secret treasures hidden in distant space, a certificate showing China has become one of the few space- faring countries in the world', he said. Mainland scientists have worked around the clock to generate images from the space probe and publish scientific data since Premier Wen Jiabao unveiled the nation's first lunar photo at the end of last month. The new images include a three-dimensional picture of a lunar plateau, a meteorite-impact site on the dark side of the moon, and estimates of the depths of lunar topsoil. Scientists also made some rough estimates of the distribution of rare elements and metals on the lunar surface. Besides scanning the moon, Chang'e-I has also collected data on Sun activity and the varying strength of high-energy plasma in the universe. Mr Hu seized the opportunity yesterday to stress the need for innovation based on self-reliance. 'Advanced science and high technology have become the focus of international competition,' he said. 'Increasing innovation based on self-reliance is at the core of our national development strategy.' Sun Jiwen , a professor at the PLA Academy of Military Science, said China's manned space programme and the latest lunar project had heartened the party leadership. Professor Sun said political leaders often faced a dilemma - to buy or not to buy - when considering technology upgrades. 'Many economists say we should buy,' he said. 'But in practice, the western countries, especially the United States and Germany, have erected very high technological barriers that cannot be overcome through commercial means.' Professor Sun said the mainland economy had reached a point where growth could no longer be supported by outdated technology dumped by developed countries. 'The space programme gives us hope,' he said. 'Space is a boot camp of almost all kinds of advanced science and high technology. If we can catch up in space, we can beat them on Earth.' But this month, China signed an Euro8 billion (HK$91.43 billion) contract with French company Areva to build a couple of third-generation nuclear power plants. Even China's space programme, touted as an independent effort, has received significant help from Russia, mainland space experts said. To achieve greater technological autonomy, the central government plans to mobilise public money, create scientific and engineering mega-projects, and achieve breakthroughs in some key areas. 'We must make good use of the political advantage of socialism,' Mr Hu said.