China’s aspiration for human space exploration emerged in the late 1960s, nearly four decades before the country’s first crewed mission. The first serious attempt to send astronauts to Earth orbit in the early 1970s was abandoned due to political turmoil and technical and financial challenges. However, relevant researches on the human spaceflight technology continued throughout the 1980s.
Shenzhou Programme (Project 921)
After years of evaluation and internal debate, the Chinese political finally took the decision to embark on a human spaceflight programme in 1992. The first phase of the programme aimed to develop a crew capsule modelled after the Russian Soyuz-TM. Following four unmanned test missions, China’s first crewed spaceflight mission was finally launched in 2003, making China only the third country in the world after Russia and the U.S. to be capable of sending human into space.
EVA and Rendezvous Docking
The second phase of the Chinese human spaceflight programme was focused on the development of advanced spaceflight techniques including EVA and rendezvous docking, to pave way for the construction of a permanent space station. Chinese astronauts carried out an EVA operation in 2007 and made three visits to the Tiangong 1/2 space laboratory modules between 2011 and 2016. The unmanned Tianzhou 1 cargo ship also demonstrated in-orbit resupply and refuelling in 2017.
Tiangong Space Station
During the third and final phase of the Chinese human spaceflight programme, a multi-module, permanently-occupied space station will be constructed on LEO, completing a three-decade plan to establish Chinese presence in space. The core module of the space station is expected to be launched in 2021, allowing intermittent visits by astronauts to demonstrate long-term orbital living. This will be followed by the launch of two laboratory modules around 2022 to allow permanent occupation.
Human Lunar Mission
Although the Chinese governance has not yet officially committed to a crewed lunar mission, the Chinese aerospace industry and scientific academia are already drafting plan to send Chinese astronauts to the Moon, followed by a temporarily crew-tended lunar base. A new-generation multi-purpose crew vehicle and a heavy-lift launch vehicle are currently in development to support the lunar mission.