Sometime in the next week, most likely this weekend, China will launch Shenzhou-IX, its fourth crewed mission into space.
If all proceeds according to plan, this mission will see the Chinese engage in their first manned docking, as the Shenzou-IX spacecraft links with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space lab. The Chinese crew, reportedly including their first female astronaut, will then spend a week to 10 days in space, making this the longest mission for any Chinese astronaut.
This mission highlights China’s ongoing efforts in space. In the 2011 Chinese space white paper, one announced goal was “100 rockets and 100 satellites” during the ongoing Twelfth Five Year Plan (2011–2015). For 2012 alone, the Chinese are hoping to launch 30 satellites over the course of 21 launches.
An unstated objective for the Chinese is to equal or surpass the United States in space. In 2011, the Chinese launched 19 payloads into space, compared with 18 U.S. launches. This was the first time in history that China had more launches than the U.S. did.
Meanwhile, with the retirement of the Space Shuttle program, the U.S. no longer has the ability to place its own astronauts into orbit, currently relying on the Russian space program to reach the International Space Station.
The Shenzhou-IX mission will provide China with badly needed experience in both docking and prolonged exposure to microgravity. Both are necessary elements for the Chinese space program, which has indicated that it will field a space station by 2020 and announced “studies” in a crewed mission to the moon. The latter is a clear signal that Beijing intends to eventually have its astronauts plant the flag of the PRC on the lunar surface.
Chinese advances in manned space are meanwhile being complemented by improvements in its broader portfolio of space capabilities. China is building not only the Long March-5, a heavy lift booster, but also the Long March-6 and -7, which will provide it with a full range of modernized launch systems capable of reaching low, medium, and geosynchronous orbits.
The Chinese space white paper also declared the intention of developing a high-resolution, multi-spectral earth observation system; in short, China will field its own spy satellites.
For the U.S., the question is whether there will be a coherent response to the Chinese challenge.