Ever since the United States edged ahead in the space race against the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 70s they became the dominant player in space, and have remained leaders in the field ever since.

Recently however, China has risen to become one of the fastest growing nations in space exploration. Their ambitious space program led by CNSA (Chinese National Space Administration) has already achieved many of the accomplishments the United States has made in space, but in a much more rapid timescale and on a much smaller budget. The rise of China’s aspirations in space has led some to believe that there is a new space race underway between them and the United States, one that could further strain relationships between the two world superpowers.

Late to the game

China’s technological ambitions can be traced back to the late 1950s, when they began a ballistic missile program in response to perceived American and Soviet threats. When the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite in 1957, Sputnik 1, Mao Zedong believed that China needed to develop its own space program to keep up with the dominant superpowers. This led to China launching its own satellites throughout the 70’s and 80’s, but a crewed program never came to fruition due to political turmoil within the country.

CNSA as we know it today was born in the late 90’s after the government consolidated many of the different departments that worked on space programmes. China launched their Shenzhou-1 spacecraft in 1999, marking the first un-crewed human spaceflight test conducted by the country. Shenzhou-1 was designed to ferry astronauts to and from space, much like Russia’s Soyuz capsule. The program was a success, and China sent their first astronaut, Yang Liwei, to space aboard the capsule in 2003.

The success of these satellites and crewed flights encouraged China to expand its goals in space. CNSA soon set about planning missions to space stations in Earth orbit, the Moon, and even on to Mars.

China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, lies in the re-entry capsule of Shenzhou-5 Spacecraft during a training on September 27, 2003

Space Stations

There have been many space stations constructed in Earth orbit since the 70’s, like the Russian Mir and the United States’ Skylab. The current International Space Station (ISS) has been humanities outpost in space for over 2 decades. It began construction in 1998 and has been continuously occupied since 2000. It is a multinational collaborative project involving 5 different space agencies: NASA (USA), Russia, JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada). Countless other astronauts from dozens of countries have also visited the orbiting laboratory. Despite bearing the title International in its name, the ISS is not truly international. China expressed interest in collaborating on the project but have been prohibited from doing so by the US. China’s use of an anti-satellite technology and the reported hacking of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory fuelled distrust in the Chinese space agency, and a bill passed by the US congress in 2011 officially banned China from visiting the International Space Station.

The International Space Station is the largest object every constructed in Earth orbit. (NASA/JPL)

Subsequently, China developed their own space station and in 2011 they launched their first, Tiangong-1. Two crewed missions visited the orbiting laboratory before it was de-orbited and burnt up within Earth’s atmosphere in 2018. Their second station, Tiangong-2, was launched in 2016 before it was also de-orbited in 2021. Both space stations were very small in comparison compared to the ISS, but China used them as testbeds to eventually build larger and more capable space stations.

In April 2021, China launched the first module of their new space station simply named Tiangong Space Station (TSS). The core module is called Tianhe, meaning ‘harmony of the heavens’, and TSS is planned to be a much larger and permanent station than its predecessors. One month after the launch of the first module, China launched a cargo mission to TSS to prepare for astronauts. Just weeks following the successfully cargo mission, China launched their first crewed mission, Shenzhou-12, to TSS in June of 2021. The crew of 3 astronauts successfully docked with the station, marking China’s first crewed flight in over 5 years. The impressive speed, rapid construction, and occupation of the new Chinese space station has proven China’s capabilities in space. It took years before the ISS could be occupied by crew, something China achieved in a matter of months.

The 3-man crew of Shenzhou-12 wave goodbye to spectators before they launch to the new Tiangong Space Station from China. (CSNA)

The International Space Station remains one of the most complex, largest, and expensive objects every built by humans, but its age is beginning to show. Funding for the ISS is only guaranteed until 2025, and its future is not certain after that point. Furthermore, the station’s second largest partner, Russia, has threatened to pull funding from the project multiple times. Russian sanctions imposed by the US have caused high political tensions on Earth, threatening an end to the two nations collaboration in space that has endured since the end of the Cold War. Russia may choose to leave the ISS in 2025 and join China on their TSS project instead. This has been seen as an increasingly likely possibility, since Russia and China announced plans for collaborative lunar exploration, and have a much closer relationship either nation does presently with the United States.

Funding for the ISS is only guaranteed until 2025, the fate of the orbiting laboratory after that is not known. (NASA)

Lunar exploration

China’s Lunar Exploration program is named Chang’e, after the Chinese Moon goddess. The program consists of several ongoing robotic missions designed to further our understanding of the Moon and test many technologies that would be needed for eventual Mars missions. The first mission was Chang’e-1, an orbiter that operated for 2 years mapping the Moon’s surface in detail. A second orbiter was launched in 2010 and incredibly had a mission extension that sent the probe to an asteroid after it had explored the Moon. Chang’e-2 flew within 3 kilometres of asteroid 4179 Toutatis, making it the closest fly-by of an asteroid at the time and the first such feat for China.

Asteroid Toutatis imaged by China’s Chang’e-2 probe as it flew past. (CSNA/LAT)

Chang’e-3 was China’s first lander, consisting of a landing probe and a small rover named Yutu. Launched to the Moon in 2013, it landed in Mare Imbrium on the Moon, making it the first soft landing to our lunar neighbour since the former Soviet Union landed Luna 24 in 1976. It was a historic moment for China, and the achievement caught the attention of space agencies around the world. The Yutu rover operated on the Moon from 2013 until 2016, far beyond its expected life span of 3 months.

China again made history with Chang’e-4 when it became the first ever spacecraft to land on the far side of the Moon, something that no spacefaring nation had ever previously achieved. Chang’e-4 landed in early 2019 along with the Yutu-2 rover in the Von Karman crater. The rover remains operational on the far side of the Moon to this day and has broken all records for the longest operational rover on the Moon. The record was previously held by the Soviet Lunokhod 1 that operated for 321 Earth days. This mission also marked the first major collaboration between the US and China since the 2011 ISS ban. Scientists from both NASA and CSNA were in talks during the landing, with both nations agreeing to share satellite data and relay information for lunar exploration missions between the two.

China’s Chang’e-4 lander on the surface of the far side of the Moon, imaged by the Yutu-2 rover. (CSNA).

With no sign of slowing down, China then launched the Chang’e-5 mission in 2020, which landed on the Moon and safely returned rock samples to Earth the first time in over 40 years. This made China the third country after the US and Soviet Union to have successfully completed a sample-return mission from the Moon. The European Space Agency also worked with China on this mission, by providing tracking and data relay from their ground stations on Earth. The success of Chang’e-5 again caught the attention of the world’s media, with many nothing the rapid speed and success of China’s space ambitions. The collaboration with other space agencies is seen as a positive move for China as it moves towards being more open towards working with other nations in space.

Chang’e-3 successfully lands on our Moon (CSNA).

All eyes on Mars

Human exploration of Mars is seen as a scientific prize for many of the worlds space agencies. NASA has been a leader of robotic Mars exploration, with dozens of successful spacecraft and rovers that haver explored the red planet since the 1970s. But they agency has been joined by many other nations in recent years, and as of 2021 there are currently 12 active spacecraft active on and around Mars.

China joined the fleet of countries to explore Mars in 2021 after their Zhurong rover successfully touched down on Mars, making them only the second nation to successfully land on Mars after the United States. Zhurong is similar in size to the twin Spirit & Opportunity rovers that NASA landed on Mars in 2004. The rover carries a suite of new scientific instruments to study the surface, including an ingenious selfie-camera system that is designed to be dropped and picked back up by the rover. This is the first solo Mars mission from China, and a success at Mars on the first attempt is a rare feat. Dozens of Mars missions have failed, either en-route to or on Mars.

China’s Zhurong rover snaps a selfie along with it’s landing platform on the surface of Mars (CSNA).

Both the United States and China have expressed that they want to eventually explore Mars with human missions, but this will be no easy feat. Manned exploration of Mars will be the most complex and perilous journey that humanity has ever undertaken. As nations around the world continue to prove their capabilities in space, eventual manned missions to the red planet will require collaboration from space agencies all around the world.

Space has always been a place of unity and teamwork that has often transcended Earth-bound tensions and conflicts. While the United States and the Soviet Union threatened each other with nuclear warfare during the Cold War, astronauts from both nations lived and worked together in space with the common goal of peaceful exploration and scientific understanding. As we move towards the next giant leap in space, we are hopeful that countries around the world can put aside their differences for the purposes of joint space exploration, with the overarching goal we all share to improve life for all on Earth.

The famous Earthrise from Apollo 8, showing our precious blue planet from the Moon. (NASA\JPL).