Two years ago, China successfully launched four commercial satellites. The Chinese government spends billions of dollars annually on their space program.
China now has a manned spacecraft; we don’t. The only way our astronauts reach the International Space Station — for now — is through Russia, and if relations with President Putin continue to deteriorate, that may no longer be an option.
The Chinese government has committed fully to its space program, seeing it as a way to win global prestige. While China is just now meeting milestones that the United States and the former Soviet Union passed decades ago, the Chinese government’s unflagging support means that its program is quickly catching up.
China became the third country ever to launch a human into space in 2003 and has been expanding its space program ever since. To date, China has successfully put eight astronauts into orbit in five missions and as its manned space enterers its second decade with ambitious plans.
China is pursuing a step-by-step robotic moon exploration program, one that would appear to also sharpen the country’s technological know-how to land humans on the moon. China put its first lunar rover – known as “Yutu” or “Jade Rabbit” to take photographs and soil samples on the moon last December but it has been plagued by mechanical troubles.
Beijing also has an active space station program. It initially sent its first space lab and still-operating spacecraft, in September 2011. There followed a cautious series of spacecraft rendezvous: An un-crewed craft docked that year, and two crewed mission in 2012 and 2013, with short stays aboard the lab. The next step will be the launch of another space lab in 2016, followed by the construction of a full-scale space station due for completion around 2020.
In October, China launched an experimental spacecraft that orbited the moon before returning to Earth. It was China’s first lunar module capable of returning to Earth. The mission’s main technical challenge was to make sure the spacecraft slowed down enough to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere safely.
Beijing’s latest space mission was intended to test technologies that the country hopes to use in a 2017 mission to the Moon during which an unmanned spacecraft will land, collect soil samples, and return to earth, said Xinhua, China’s official news agency.
China is not the only county with ambitious plans for space exploration. China was leapfrogged by its regional rival India in September when that country successfully sent a spacecraft into orbit around Mars, something China had previous tried but failed to achieve.
In response to China manned space initiative, India is also developing an Indian manned flight program with the launch of Indian astronauts planned by 2016-2018.