Chinese Manned spaceflight


Welcome to the latest post from the Science Geek. The topic of this post, which is part of a series about the Moon, is the Chinese manned space programme. As I said in my last post, sadly it is now nearly 42 years since the last Apollo astronauts lifted off from the Moon’s surface and I believe the next humans to visit our nearest neighbour will be from China.

Once again I must give thanks to Mrs Geek correcting all my errors in spelling and grammar and making my posts far more readable.

Overview of Missions so Far

On 15 October 2003, Yang Liwei stepped into the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft and shortly after take off went into orbit to become the first Chinese astronaut. China then became only the third nation in the world, after Russia and the United States, to have their own space programme capable of putting a human into orbit without the assistance of any other nation.

yang liwei

Yang Liwei -The First Chinese Astronaut -Image provided by Dyor

Since that first historic flight China has launched a further five manned space missions. The last two missions, Shenzhou 9 and 10, have each had three astronauts and during the missions the astronauts have stayed in the Chinese space station, which is called Tiangong-1.  Tiangong is the Chinese for ‘heavenly palace’, which I think is a very appropriate name for a space station!



The Shenzhou spacecraft docking with the Tiangong Space Station -Drawing by Craigboy

Forthcoming Manned Missions

Next year China plans to launch a second larger space station called Tiangong-2. This will be visited by a Shenzhou spacecraft and an unmanned spacecraft bringing supplies so as to allow the astronauts to stay longer in space.

In 2020 China plans to build a larger 60 tonne space station. This will be too large to be launched on a single rocket, so the various components or modules will be launched on different rockets and the space station will be assembled in orbit. As someone who has just moved house and put together a great deal of flat-pack furniture, I can only imagine what a feat this will be.  Once assembled, and hopefully less rickety than our new wardrobe, this will enable Chinese astronauts to have a permanent manned presence in space.

Unmanned Chinese Mission to the Moon

China has already sent three space probes to the Moon: Chang’e 1 and Chang’ e 2 (see notes) both orbited the Moon. The spacecraft were named after Chang’e who was an ancient Chinese goddess who lived on the Moon by herself with only her pet jade rabbit to keep her company.

In December 2013 the third probe , Change’e 3, performed a gentle controlled ‘soft’ landing onto the Moon’s surface, the first spacecraft to do so for nearly forty years. It had a large array of scientific instruments to study the Moon’s surface and a six wheeled rover named Yutu (Chinese for jade rabbit), which was intended to move around and explore the Moon’s surface.


The landing site of the Chang’e 3 spacecraft and Yutu Rover – Image from NASA

Next year another unmanned probe, Chang’ e 4, will be launched to a different area of the Moon on a similar mission. More excitingly, in 2017 Chang’ e 5 will land on the Moon, collect samples of moon rock, and return them back to Earth for analysis.

Manned Chinese Mission to the Moon

For the last 10 years various statements have been made by the Chinese National Space Agency which have indicated that it is a goal for China to land humans on the Moon. Indeed at the end of last year, following the successful Chang’ e 3 landing, the People’s Daily, the official paper of the Chinese Communist Party, reported that ‘Chinese aerospace researchers are working on setting up a lunar base’.

Although no definitive time-scales have been released yet, I think it is very likely that China will  land a human on the Moon in around 2025 to 2030. The investment required will be huge. It technically far more complicated to land astronauts on the Moon, then blast off from from the Moon’s surface and return safely to Earth, than to land an unmanned space probe on the Moon’s surface.

Indeed between 1961 and the end of 1972 the United States spent the equivalent of around $140 billion in today’s money to achieve the manned moon landings. This large expenditure brought many advances. A large number of jobs in high technology industries were created. Many of the advances in electronics in the 1960s can be traced back to the space programme and there were some interesting lesser known spinoffs ranging from improvements in kidney dialysis to better home insulation. More details can be found on the following website,

National Prestige

In 1969, landing a man on the Moon gave the Americans a huge sense of national prestige.  It also confirmed their standing as the most powerful country in the world, as at the time no other country could have done this. By 2020 China will have overtaken America as the world’s largest economy. By landing a human on Moon China will confirm its new standing n the world.

Next Post

In my next post, which will be the final post in my series about the Moon, I will look forward further into the future, into the next century and beyond, and discuss moon-bases. When are humans likely to live on the Moon? Why would we want live there? And what are the obstacles to prevent us doing so?


After orbiting the Moon in mid 2011, Chang’e 2 left lunar orbit and performed a rendezvous with a nearby asteroid passing about 3 km above its surface. The spacecraft is now in interplanetary space about 100 million km from Earth. It is in full contact with mission control in China, and is proving that the Chinese can track and control probes in deep space.





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