China's Shenzhou-11 spacecraft docked Oct. 19 with the Tiangong-2 space laboratory, which went up last month. The Shenzhou-11 launched Oct. 16 and carried two Chinese astronauts, known as "taikonauts," making it the country's first manned launch since 2013 and its sixth in the history of its space program.
The mission will last 30 days, double that of China's next longest manned spaceflight. During that time, the crew will test several necessary functions designed to support a much longer continuously manned space station that China intends to launch in the next decade. Although China is one of the world's leading spacefaring nations and one of just three countries to achieve human spaceflight, it does not have the expertise or experience of Russia or the United States.
In spite of its short track record, China has made manned spaceflight a key objective with an eye toward international prestige and domestic political goals. The Shenzhou-11 mission in particular is key to achieving these goals. China hopes to use its space station and other civil space programs as a means to secure cooperation from like-minded countries that lack easy access to space — particularly those in the developing world.
Before resorting to a plan to build their own space station, China had hoped to gain access to the International Space Station. Russia and Europe backed this plan but the United States balked. Because Washington was the backbone of the project, Beijing was forced to embark on its own endeavor. With the International Space Station nearing the end of its lifespan, China could soon find an opening to partner with others with more experience, perhaps Europe. The United States, for its part, seems likely to focus on other goals such as travel to Mars.
While China's mission is noteworthy, it is not the only major space development in the past two days. Roscomos and the European Space Agency are in the process of attempting to land the Schiaparelli lander on the surface of Mars. The outcome of today's European mission is not yet clear.