The China National Space Administration (CNSA) is the national agency for China to co-ordinate its space activities. In contrast to most other space agencies worldwide, the organization is not involved with the International Space Station and, in fact, has a small space station of its own.
Since 2003, when Yang Liwei became the first Chinese national in space, CNSA has done several manned space launches. In 2013, a three-person crew aboard Shenzhou 9 made the first Chinese manned docking in space, attaching to the single-room station, Tiangong 1.
The agency succeeded in making the first soft landing on the moon in decades in December 2014 with its Chang'e 3 lander and its rover, Yutu. CNSA also carries out periodic launches by itself using its Chang Zheng (Long March) rocket series.
Path to the first taikonaut flight
Information about the Chinese space program is scant. Although CNSA has its own website, which is updated during missions, most of the updates about the agency's plans come through state-controlled Chinese media.
That public caution is likely a legacy of China's start in space after the country entered Communist control in 1949. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the roots of Chinese space began with officials such as Qian Xuesen, a co-founder of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Qian returned to China sometime after the takeover and in 1956, was appointed the first director of the Ministry of National Defense's Fifth Research Academy. The academy was tasked with overseeing ballistic missile development and beginning a space program, the encyclopedia added. Responsibility for space shifted among several government departments in the decades since.
CNSA itself formed in 1993, a year after China started its own human space program. It developed a spacecraft called Shenzhou, which rely on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft design but have been modernized by Chinese engineers.
China's first space traveler — called a taikonaut from the Mandarin word for space, tàikōng — was Yang Liwei. He entered space alone on Oct. 15, 2003, aboard Shenzhou 5. Yang's flight marked China as the third country ever to independently launch a human into space, after Russia and the United States began in 1961.
Other human spaceflight activities
Two years after Yang finished his flight, Shenzhou 6 launched with the first two-person Chinese crew. The mission reportedly was a test of how capable Shenzhou's life-support systems were, and also featured experiments and better food for the taikonauts.
The next mission, Shenzhou 7, featured the first Chinese spacewalk by Zhai Zhigang on Sept. 27, 2008. "I have been out of the hatch, I'm feeling good," Zhai said as he began his outside activities, according to the CCTV official Chinese television announcer's translation.
China selected seven new taikonauts in 2010, including two women. CNSA's one-room space station, Tiangong 1, launched in September 2011 and underwent two robotic dockings with the unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft that November. The crews of Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10 made their own manned dockings to Tiangong 1 in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
A successor small space station called Tiangong 2 is expected to launch in 2016. In past years, China has discussed creating a bigger space station and has also talked about perhaps doing a manned lunar mission some day.
Other Chinese space activities
China did a successful anti-satellite test on one of its own machines in 2007, drawing the concern of international space authorities as a debris cloud of hundreds of pieces spread into orbit. Five years later, the International Space Station had to take evasive maneuvers to put enough of a safe distance between it and one of the pieces from that test.
CNSA does regular launches with its Long March series of rockets, which send various types of satellites into space. A Long March 2C rocket had a malfunction in 2011 that also destroyed an experimental Chinese satellite. China is now developing a Long March 5 rocket that is intended to bolster the agency's work on the larger space station and possible lunar missions.
"The rockets in service cannot meet the demand from a future manned space station," Yuan Jie, deputy general manager of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), told the state-run Xinhua news agency in June 2013. "We need rockets with even larger carrying capacities."
CNSA made a successful soft landing on the moon with its lander, Chang'e-3. The lander deployed a rover called Yutu. Announcements from the mission are few, but the rover was confirmed to have died in March 2015. The mission sent back high-resolution pictures from the surface and also found a new kind of basaltic rock. In January 2016, state agency Xinhua reported that a follow-up mission called Chang'e-4will land on the far side of the moon (the side that never faces Earth) in 2018. No mission has soft-landed there yet.
According to multiple news reports in spring 2016, China's near-term plans include launching a successor small Tiangong-2 space station and a crew in late 2016, and sending a Mars rover out in 2020. CNSA also plans to have a larger, orbital station in service by 2020. CNSA is further working on technologies such as cargo ships and reusable rockets.
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Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace