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Advancing Rockets in Stages

Over 2012-2017, China plans to steadily advance the technology and lifting capacity of its workhorse Long March rockets, which the country has employed to launch satellites into orbit. According to the Dec. 29, 2011, white paper, the Long March-5 will lift 25 metric tons (55,116 pounds) into low-Earth orbit -- that's more lift capacity than American space shuttles had before they were mothballed, but only a fraction of the lift capacity of the Saturn V rocket that sent American astronauts to the moon, or of the planned American Space Launch System, which at build-out will be able to haul 130 metric tons (286,000 pounds) into space.

Moving forward, China plans to tighten down its reliability record and build up a fleet of more flexible spacecraft. The December report described the Long March-6 as a "new type of high-speed response launch vehicle" with the ability to boost a 1-metric-ton (2,204-pound) payload into sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 435 miles (700 kilometers). The Long March-7 is slated to pack an even bigger punch, placing 5.5 metric tons (12,125 pounds) of payload into the same orbit.

That's important, because they're going to need all the lifting capacity they can get if they want to pull off their latest project: an orbital space station.

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