Three taikonauts successfully linked a spacecraft to the Tiangong-1 orbiting lab in June, the first time a Chinese crew performed such a docking. The mission marked another major milestone in China's rapidly advancing human space program: One member of the three-person crew, Liu Yang, became the first Chinese woman in orbit. So far, China has launched four manned missions. None have been technological breakthroughs (the United States and Russia accomplished similar feats decades ago), but the Chinese "have made demonstrable progress in the last decade," says space historian Roger Launius of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
China's long-range space plans
, broadly outlined in a government white paper released in late 2011, call for a manned orbiting station by 2020—the same year the International Space Station is scheduled to close—and an eventual, though not well-defined, mission to send taikonauts to the moon. The nation also plans to develop three new versions of its Long March rocket, two of which will be capable of placing satellites in orbits that provide ideal vantage points from which to observe Earth’s surface. Improved surveillance of other countries is no doubt one goal, but the manned spaceflight effort is not merely in the service of national security, analysts say. It also provides China with technological and political bragging rights, touting its rise as a global superpower. “They have gained what they really wanted, which is prestige abroad and pride at home,” Launius says. “This is a way to rally the nation.”