The Chinese space program is advancing, and fast, to the point that the country's ambition has become a campaign issue in the United States.
China plans to establish its own space lab around 2016 and assemble a 60-ton manned space station around 2020, when the current International Space Station is estimated to likely retire, the official Xinhua News Agency reported in November. China has also begun efforts to explore the moon using space robotics. The eventual goal: a manned lunar landing.
This exploration comes as the United States has been scaling back its plans and funding for space exploration.
In recent debates among presidential aspirants in the Republican Party, candidates criticized America’s flagging space program. Mitt Romney called for a partnership among "corporate America as well as the defense network and others" to "create a plan that will keep our space program thriving and growing."
Newt Gingrich cited China's soaring ambitions. "Every serious analyst understands that the Chinese are going all out to dominate space," Gingrich said. "I would like to have an American on the moon before the Chinese get there."
To be sure, China is still decades away from a moon landing.
Chinese officials speak of a three-step manned space flight plan: send a person into orbit, dock spacecraft together to form a small space lab and ultimately build a large space station.
“They are currently in step two,” says Joan Johnson-Freese of the U.S. Naval War College. “For comparative purposes, it’s about where the U.S. was during the Gemini program.”
China has developed its own spaceship, the Shenzhou, or Divine Vessel, which observers say resembles Russia’s Soyuz space capsule. Over the years, it has upgraded its launch vehicles, built new spaceflight facilities and trained a stable of astronauts.
Still, China did not put a man in space until 2003, 41 years after John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth. (Alan Shepard was the first American to fly in space, in 1961.) That year, Col. Yang Liwei orbited the Earth 14 times aboard the Shenzhou 5 space capsule.
Yang’s voyage has enhanced China’s image overseas and boosted national pride at home. Only Russia, the United States and China have sent astronauts to space.
Before that, China's space program was largely seen as capable but lacking in sophistication.
I saw that myself up close.
In August 1997, I had the rare chance to visit the Xichang Satellite Launching Center in rural Sichuan province to observe the launch of Mabuhay, the first Filipino communications satellite.
Inside a windowless building, we watched Chinese staff work frenetically behind rows of computers and panels. They struck me as quite unassuming in their white wrinkled robes, which made them look more like doctors in a hospital ward than aerospace experts.
There was palpable anxiety before the launch.
Two years earlier, a rocket exploded at this launch site after liftoff and killed several people on the ground. This time, when the Chinese-made rocket rumbled skyward, the crowd in the hall cheered.
The glitch-less launch restored China’s reputation and self-confidence.
China has been vying for a bigger slice of the lucrative satellite-launch market. China is also looking to harness aerospace technology for spinoffs in telecommunications, weather forecasting, agriculture, medicine and navigation.
If the trajectory remains unchanged, experts say, China’s space activities may well surpass those of Russia and the European Space Agency in a decade or so. That will position China just next to the United States as a dominant space power.