'Milestones': China's space dreams from ground zero upwards

China launched a spacecraft on Thursday carrying three astronauts to the main module of the country's space station, its first crewed mission in nearly five years.

China's first full-fledged space station is still under construction. When completed, it will be the only rival to the International Space Station (ISS) backed by the United States, Japan, and Russia. China has never participated in the ISS.

Here is a timeline of key moments in Chinese space exploration:

July 19, 1964

China took its first official step into space, launching and recovering an experimental biological rocket carrying white mice.

(Photograph:AFP)

April 24, 1970

The first Chinese satellite, Dong Fang Hong 1, was launched from the Jiuquan launch centre in the northwestern province of Gansu. That made China the fifth country to send satellites into orbit, following the Soviet Union, the United States, France and Japan.

(Photograph:AFP)

November 20, 1999

China launched its first unmanned spacecraft, the Shenzhou-1. The spacecraft used was not equipped with a life support system or an emergency escape system.

(Photograph:AFP)

October 15, 2003

China became the third country after the United States and Russia to send a man into space with its own rocket. Astronaut Yang Liwei spent about 21 hours in space aboard the Shenzhou-5 spacecraft.

(Photograph:AFP)

November 5, 2007

China's first lunar orbiter, Chang'e-1, entered the moon's orbit 12 days after takeoff. The mission cost 1.4 billion yuan ($180 million) and operated for two years.

(Photograph:AFP)

September 29, 2011

The Tiangong-1, or "Heavenly Palace 1", China's first space lab, was launched to carry out docking and orbiting experiments. In Novmeber, China carried out its first docking exercise between two unmanned spacecraft, the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft and Tiangong-1 module, a key test to securing a long-term manned presence in space.

(Photograph:AFP)

September 15, 2016

China launched its second experimental space laboratory, the Tiangong-2, part of a broader plan to have a permanent manned space station in service around 2022.

(Photograph:AFP)

June 23, 2020

China put into orbit its final Beidou satellite, completing a navigation network years in the making and setting the stage to challenge the U.S.-owned Global Positioning System (GPS).

(Photograph:Reuters)

May 15, 2021

 China became the second country after the United States to land a robotic rover on the surface of Mars.

(Photograph:AFP)

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