Given its name, you might imagine that the International Space Station is, well, international. And, it definitely is; even when political tempers are running hot, the US and Russia lead the way for a variety of nations to learn to live and work in space. But, there are a few countries that haven't been invited to the party. These pariahs include developing space nations like North Korea, Iran, and China. It's a bit unfair, though, to lump China in with those other two. After all, China's space program is rapidly becoming one of the most advanced in the world, with its own rockets, crew capsules, and even a space lab.
Building space stations is very tricky business, and China's Tiangong-1 lab is actually probably best known not for its real-life accomplishments, but for its role in the 2013 Oscar-winning film "Gravity." Unlike the ISS, Tiangong-1 isn't set up for long term habitation. In fact, it's more like the US Skylab, which operated in the mid 1970s, than today's ISS or Russia's former Mir station. Two crewed missions have docked with the lab, but their stays were measured in weeks, not months or years.
Tiangong-1 is just the first stepping stone towards a more permanent Chinese presence in space. Soon to be de-orbited (burned up in the Earth's atmosphere), a more advanced version known as Tiangong-2 is slated for launch in 2016. One of the most important tasks China plans to accomplish with this lab is to practice unmanned delivery of supplies. This is a key capability necessary to keep a station fully stocked.
Two years after Tiangong-2 launches, the nation will place a key experimental module into space, according to Yang Liwei, Deputy Director of China's space agency and the first Chinese citizen to travel to space. Today's announcement was unclear about whether this module would connect to either Tiangong-2 or the full Tiangong-3 (surprise!) station set to be launched in 2022.
Although China continues to lag the established leaders in space capabilities, it's clear the country is placing an emphasis on catching up. Like their counterparts in the United States and Russia, China's leaders stress that their space program is a peaceful endeavor. Despite these claims, China's sometimes-testy relationship with the Western world has resulted in its relative isolation within the global space community. Hopefully their continued efforts towards the peaceful, productive exploration of space will lead to greater future engagement with this burgeoning space power.