On Nov. 19, 1999, China's Shenzhou space program got off the ground with the launch of the Shenzhou I. It was a simple spacecraft, with no cargo, no life-support system, and certainly no astronaut. Just four years later, with the Shenzhou V and its pilot, Yang Liwei, China had become the third country in history to send a manned vessel into space. Since then, China has sent a total of five manned missions into orbit, including June's 15-day Shenzhou X mission, the country's longest to date. During the mission, three astronauts conducted automatic and manually controlled dockings with an orbiting module. These are crucial steps in establishing a permanent space station, which China hopes will replace its current small orbiting module by 2020.
While China remains significantly behind the world's other two space powers -- the United States and Russia -- the end of America's shuttle program in 2011 means that the future of manned space exploration may well shift, however gradually, from Washington to Beijing. China already has plans to send up a larger "space lab" in 2015 before unveiling its own space station in 2020. More ambitiously, it is also exploring the feasibility of putting a man on the moon by 2025. With these lofty goals, the next decade could be even more significant than the last. As John Hickman writes for Foreign Policy, there "are unmistakable warning signs that China may surpass the United States and Russia to become the world's preeminent spacefaring power."
Above, Chinese astronauts Zhang Xiaoguang, Nie Haisheng, and Wang Yaping salute after getting out of the re-entry capsule of the Shenzhou X on June 26.