Astronaut Yang Liwei, the first Chinese to enter space, is seen here before he entered the Shenzhou-5 spacecraft at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Gansu Province on October 15, 1999. [Photo: 163.com]
China first unveiled its manned space engineering program in 1992, with the eventual goal to construct a permanent space station in 2022.
Between late 1999 and early 2003, China conducted a total of four unmanned space flight tests to examine the various functions and designs of its spacecraft, launch vehicles and ground capabilities. The Shenzhou-1 was launched on November 20, 1999, while the Shenzhou-4 took off on December 30, 2002 and returned to the Earth seven days later after orbiting the Earth 108 times.
While still unmanned, the Shenzhou-4 was a fully functional spacecraft with the same capabilities and safety features as a manned vehicle. Its successful launch and return led to China's first manned space launch later in 2003, a major milestone in the country's space industry.
On October 15, the Shenzhou-5 carried 38-year-old astronaut Yang Liwei into space. Yang returned to the Earth safely 21 hours and 23 minutes later after orbiting the Earth 14 times. The successful mission made China the third country in the world, after Russia and the United States, to independently send a human into space.
Two years later in 2005, the Shenzhou-6 carried two astronauts into space. 2008 saw a Chinese astronaut carry out the country's first space walk during the flight of Shenzhou-7.
The unmanned Shenzhou-8, launched in November 2011, saw a breakthrough in China's space docking technology. The spacecraft successfully docked with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space module, which was launched less than two months prior and then went on to dock with both the Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 in following years.
The launch of the Shenzhou-9 came in June 2012, carrying China's first female astronaut into space. Shenzhou-9 also saw the crew perform the first manned docking in space. Shenzhou-10 was launched in June 2013, when it became China's first applicantion-oriented space flight. Astronauts conducted medical experiments, technical tests and even delivered a lecture to students on earth about basic physics principles.
Last September, China launched the Tiangong-2 space lab into orbit, which is designed to enable two astronauts to live in space for up to 30 days. A month later in October, the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft successfully docked with the Tiangong-2 in space, allowing the two Chinese astronauts to enter the space lab. They spent 33 days in space before landing back on earth successfully.
The now launched Tianzhou-1, as China's first independently developed cargo ship, is expected to dock with the Tiangong-2 space lab, in addition to carrying out space experiments.