Establishing a Space Laboratory
Tiangong-1 lifts off

China's first space laboratory module Tiangong-1 lifts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Sept, 29, 2011, with a little help from a Long March rocket.

Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

On Sept. 29, 2011, China launched its Tiangong-1 ("Heavenly Palace 1") space laboratory -- the first piece of, and test bed for, its planned orbital space station. After 2020, when the then-decommissioned International Space Station embarks on its fiery atmospheric re-entry over the Pacific Ocean, Tiangong-1 will take over as the only space station still in operation.

Pulling together a successful space station requires perfecting such procedures as docking and refueling, and China has taken its first steps toward meeting this need. The nation's space agency already completed its first successful space docking on Nov. 3, 2011, when the uncrewed Shenzhou-8 capsule and Tiangong-1 module linked up live on national television [source: Jacobs]. China plans to carry on practicing space docking at Tiangong-1.

Moving on to crewed docking maneuvers and establishing an orbiting Chinese space station form the basis of the nation's next great leap forward. Read on to see how China plans to do the regolith rhumba on the moon.