“Our overall goal is that, by around 2030, China will be among the major space powers of the world,” Wu Yanhua, the deputy chief of the National Space Administration, said recently.
While the report doesn’t mention it, Chinese space officials have said they would put astronauts on the moon by the mid-2030s.
The report demonstrates the growing capabilities of a burgeoning space program, one that’s often overlooked in a domain of other spacefaring nations, particularly the United States. China’s military-run space program began to take shape in the mid-1950s, at the start of the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Its efforts would be repeatedly derailed by political turmoil inside the country. Experts say the program is a decade or so behind the leading spacefaring nations, but it’s no rookie. China is only the third country to put its own astronauts into space, and, with Americans launching to space on Russian rockets, it’s currently only one of two that retains that capacity.
China first sent an astronaut into space in 2003. Yang Liwei, a former fighter pilot, orbited the Earth for 21 hours inside a Shenzhou spacecraft, launched by one of the Long March rockets. The pace of exploration quickened from there. In 2007, a Long March rocket sent Chang’e-1, an uncrewed orbiter, for a 15-month rendezvous around the moon. In 2011, CNSA launched Tiangong-1, the first component for a prototype orbital laboratory like the International Space Station. A Shenzhou spacecraft carrying three astronauts, including China’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang, successfully docked with Tiangong-1 a year later. China returned to the moon in 2013, landing the country’s first lunar rover. CNSA lost control over its would-be space station in 2016, but a successor, Tiangong-2, launched not long after. In November, two astronauts spent 30 days aboard Tiangong-2, China’s longest crewed mission, to study how to live and work in microgravity. The Americans and the Russians have spent years learning about surviving in orbit on the ISS, but for the Chinese, this was pioneering work.
China’s space activities represent “goals that any ambitious space country would want to pursue,” says John Logsdon, a professor emeritus at George Washington University who founded the Space Policy Institute there in 1987. And though China’s space capabilities are significantly behind those of the United States and Russia, particularly in deep-space exploration, experts say they’re about on par with Europe’s. (China and Russia have the technology to send people into space, while the U.S. doesn’t—at least until SpaceX and Boeing successfully test their NASA-sponsored Commercial Crew programs.)
But there’s no space race, Logsdon says, despite some of the headlines that tend to emerge whenever China launches anything.