On Monday, at a launch center in the middle of the Gobi desert, two taikonauts boarded a spacecraft and rocketed into space. Yesterday their ship, Shenzou-11, docked with China’s experimental space lab, Tiangong-2. For the next 30 days—China’s longest crewed space mission—they will conduct experiments, test equipment, practice repairs, try to grow plants, and keep track of how the space environment affects their bodies. Sound familiar, space fans?

It should. Tiangong-2 is like a baby International Space Station. Sure, it doesn’t have the ISS’s scale, technological sophistication, or multi-national backing. But it’s the technical testing ground for the grown up space station China plans to launch in the next couple of years. Which will more permanent, and about the size of Mir, the Soviet Union’s space station in the 80s and 90s. But mostly, Tiangong-2 an important part of China’s long term plan to build a Moon base. And from there, it’ll be hard to deny China a seat at the space superpower table.

Like everything China does, people consistently underestimate the nation’s space program. Common snubs include: It’s miles behind the curve; their gear is all Russian knockoffs; their launch schedules are hopelessly slapdash. Yeah, those have all been true at one point, but not an honest assessment of the program as it currently stand.

China did not launch its first satellite until the 1970s, and didn’t really invest heavily in their space program until the early ’90s (the Cultural Revolution was a bigger priority) but they’ve been gaining ground on the US and Europe ever since. Early on, the nation’s program relied on Russia, both for components and training for their would-be taikonauts.

And the Shenzhou spacecraft do resemble Soviet (now Russian) Soyuz. But don’t hate: “The Shenzhou is the same idea, but not a copy,” says Jonathan McDowel, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “In its present form, it’s very much a Chinese vehicle.” The Chinese spacecraft is bigger, more powerful, and its forward habitation module has solar panels that can provide power for a separate mission—even after the astronauts climb aboard Tiangong-2.

Slapdash? Anything but. “This is not a fly-by-night program,” says Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College. “They’re just taking a very different approach than the US did. We launched a lot. They only launch every three years or so, but take a very big step forward with each launch.”

The Chinese announced their manned spaceflight program in 1992 as an incremental three step process: First, send someone on a non-fatal, roundtrip space journey, which they did in 2003. Like any trilogy, the second act is where things get exciting. (Don’t @ us: you know The Empire Strikes Back and The Two Towers are where the drama’s at.) Part two of China’s program is what’s happening now—launch some space labs and develop advanced spaceflight capabilities like orbital docking. Last is getting permanent structures out into orbit, like that space station we mentioned earlier. And sometime after that, the Moon.

China ramping up its space program has some people worried, and that’s understandable. China’s space program is run by the People’s Liberation Army, and has always had a strong military bent. “It would not surprise me if during this month-long mission, the taikonauts were used to do observations of military interest amongst their scientific experiments,” McDowell says.

It’s not like US astronauts have never been agents of the military. But really, the US is unusual in that its military and civil space programs are fairly distinct. For those with reason to be concerned by such things, China’s space program has a few concerning military projects—looking at you, spy satellites and anti-satellite missiles—but the very un-weaponized space station probably isn’t one of them.

The notion that China is a burgeoning space superpower is harder to deny. “This is the pivot year in the Chinese space program,” McDowell says. “They’ve got lots of hardware coming through the pipeline, and are now preparing to switch over to a new generation of rockets.” A Long March 2F launched Monday’s spacecraft, but China expects to start test flying the Long March 5 in early November.

Newer, bigger rockets will allow China to launch that bigger space station. The next generation, heavy lift Long March 5 rocket is powerful enough to get a craft to the Moon. According to McDowell, Chinese taikonauts are likely to reach that destination by the late 2020s. “China’s human spaceflight program is ticking off everything America and Russia did in the space age,” McDowell says.

And while China developing manned spaceflight prowess isn’t a pressing security threat, it does stand to rebalance the global powers. “Having your own space station, flying somebody to the moon, that’s what big countries do,” says John Pike, a prominent military analyst and director of GlobalSecurity.org. “It unambiguously demonstrates that China has stood up and wants to be taken seriously as a rising power.”

Crewed spaceflight is basically a prestige move. It doesn’t have the direct economic benefits of something like GPS (or China’s version, BeiDou). The probable reason China wants people in space—and why some people get huffy about China’s space station or Moon ambitions—is because it gives them a shot at unseating NASA as Earth’s premier space power player. “We’ve taken careful aim and shot ourselves in the foot,” says Johnson-Freese. “There’s a perception that the US is floundering and underfunded, and European astronaut wannabes are learning Chinese.”

To be fair, China is still about 20 years behind the US in terms of spacecraft automation, sophistication, and reliability. According to McDowell, at the ‘where no one has gone before’ limits of the field, the US, Europe and perhaps Japan are still the real power players. But as China continues to advance at gathering speeds, it sure seems like another space race might be in order.


China Wants the Moon. But First, It Has to Spend a Month in Space