The people of China have turned their gaze to space -- and not just for the occasional solar eclipse.

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Is China winning the new space race?

The final U.S. space shuttle touched down on July 21, 2011, sending several thousand scientists, engineers, mechanics and support personnel to the unemployment line and leaving American astronauts to hitch rides to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard Russian rockets.

Scarcely more than two months later, China launched its Tiangong-1 ("Heavenly Palace 1") space laboratory into orbit aboard a Long March-2FT1 rocket, laying the orbiting cornerstone for what will eventually be a larger crewed space station. China has scheduled the outpost for completion in 2020 -- the same year the ISS is slated for decommission -- or perhaps as early as 2016.

When the veteran ISS concludes its low-Earth-orbit tenure, its fiery arc across the Pacific Ocean sky will mark the culmination of one era and the commencement of another, one in which China will own and operate the only space station circling the planet. The fact is a bit ironic, in view of America's prior rejection of Chinese participation in the ISS on the grounds that the nation had little to offer (later snubs revolved around alarm concerning China's potential space-related military plans). In any case, U.S. astronauts are unlikely to carpool on Chinese rockets or log hours in the planned Tiangong lab any time soon.

Given the demise of the Constellation program endorsed by President George W. Bush and the storm surrounding NASA's Senate-mandated Space Launch System, announced on Sept. 14, 2011, China's ascent has prompted some to wonder if the Eastern giant now stands poised to replace America as the dominant space power.

China upped the ante on Dec. 29, 2011, when it publicized its ambitious five-year plan for space exploration, evoking fading echoes of the U.S.-U.S.S.R space race under way at the height of the Cold War. At stake, then as now? The prestige of nations: Achieving spaceflight demonstrates economic power and proclaims to the world that a nation's technical prowess and scientific acumen are on a par with the best.

Furthermore, then as now, military applications overshadow scientific advancement, terrestrially and in space. What began with spy satellites and space-kissing ballistic missiles culminated in 1983 with President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (nicknamed Star Wars by opponents) -- a combination of ground- and space-based systems intended to shield the U.S. from nukes. Today, global powers remain contentious over such missile defense "umbrellas." Meanwhile, both the United States and China have tested systems for shooting down satellites [sources: Lague; Wolf].

Although China has stated that it "opposes weaponization or any arms race in outer space," the communist nation does not draw clear divisions between its military, civilian and scientific sectors, and its space program maintains strong ties to its concomitant military expansion [source: Wong and Chang; IOSC].

Arms race or no, China's headway in space has been steady. Read on to find out where the Middle Kingdom plans to take its program in the near future and whether taikonauts will soon rule the skies.

5-4-3-2-1. And there went, Chang'e-1, the lunar probe and first step in China's three-stage moon mission.

China Photos/Getty Images

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Building a New Space Dynasty

America has backed increasingly away from human space exploration since the George W. Bush administration cancelled the space shuttle program and President Obama put the kibosh on Bush's proposed moonshot.

As for Russia, its program, fraught with failed flights, looks to have hit the skids. In the 13 months leading up to January 2012, Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, failed at a space station resupply mission, fell short of placing two communications satellites into proper orbits and splashed three navigation spacecraft into the Pacific Ocean after launch. Then there's the botched Phobos-Grunt, Russia's ambitious mission to return rocks from Mars' largest moon. After becoming stuck in Earth orbit after launch, it burned up upon re-entry and plummeted into the Pacific on Jan. 15, 2012.

Meanwhile, China carries on building its satellite web, expanding its crewed space program, upgrading its launch facilities, improving its lift vehicles and laying the foundations for a moon shot.

Two lunar probes, Chang'e-1 and Chang'e-2 (named for a Chinese moon goddess), have already successfully mapped the lunar landscape, tested landing equipment and supplied high-resolution images of landing sites [sources: CNN; CJSS]. The 2013 Chang'e-3 probe will gather moon rock samples and return them to Earth. With the experience and technical know-how gained from these missions, China will be well on its way to sending taikonauts to the moon. (The word "taikonaut" comes from taikong, the Chinese word for space, and the Greek suffix -naut, for sailor.)

China's roadmap for the next five years (2012 through 2016) focuses on the following goals:

  1. Refining recent rockets and developing new ones
  2. Improving existing launch sites and constructing new ones
  3. Establishing an orbiting framework of communications, scientific and GPS satellites
  4. Preparing the way for expanded human spaceflight
  5. Conducting limited deep-space surveys
  6. Using spacecraft to carry out experiments, take astronomical observations and warn against space debris

So what do those goals mean for China and the final frontier? Find out next.

Yang Liwei, China's first astronaut in space, salutes before giving a speech during a 2007 meeting marking the 80th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army.

Guang Niu/Getty Images

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The Tortoise and the Hare Race to Space

Are we witnessing the dawn of Chinese dominance in space? It depends. China has set itself some properly lofty goals; meeting each one entails an array of intricate moving parts. Launching and maintaining a successful space lab, for example, necessitates innovations in docking and refueling, orbital construction and long-term life-support -- and that's just for starters.

The accomplishments of China's space program so far are roughly equivalent to the United States' and the former Soviet Union's space programs circa the mid-1960s. However, the nation has made steady headway, setting a succession of modest goals and meeting them, since it kicked off in 1992: launching its first taikonaut, Yang Liwei, into space in 2003, for example, and conducting its first spacewalk five years later. Moreover, like its military, which in 2011 overhauled a Soviet warship as the basis of its first aircraft carrier, China benefits from years of hard-won advancements by other countries, including microchips and space-age materials.

Meanwhile, don't count out the other space powers -- or the private sector. China's military and economic growth argues strongly for other nations to at least keep pace, or risk a military or technological gap. Perhaps the threat of a Chinese space station or moon mission will galvanize the U.S., inspiring the country's voters to goad their government into giving NASA the direction and support it needs to retain its fading prominence and reclaim the glory of old.

If not, we might be witnessing the middle of a tortoise-and-hare contest, in which a low-budget, steady program overtakes its flitting, fickle, but better-established, rival.

Lots More Information

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Sources

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