The Significance of China’s New Space Station

Adding a crew to China’s new orbiting space station is another major advance for the burgeoning space power. The three-member crew is due to stay for three months in the station’s main living module, named Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony. They will be carrying out science experiments and maintenance, space walks and preparing the facility to receive two additional modules next year.

While China concedes it arrived late at the space station game, it says its facility is cutting-edge. It could also outlast the International Space Station, which is nearing the end of its effective lifespan. The mission also revives China’s crewed space program after a five-year hiatus. With Thursday’s launch, China has now sent 14 astronauts into space since it first achieved the feat in 2003, becoming the third country after the former Soviet Union and the U.S. to do so.

As the Chinese economy was beginning to gather steam in the early 1990s, China formulated a plan for space exploration, which it has carried out at a steady, cautious cadence. While China has been barred from participation in the International Space Station, mainly over U.S. objections to the Chinese program’s secretive nature and close military connections, it’s likely the country would have built its own station anyway as it sought the status of a great space power.