On a Monday afternoon in June, belated history was made 213 miles above the Earth’s surface. At 2:07 p.m. Beijing time, the Chinese Shenzhou-9 space capsule, carrying three astronauts, plugged into a 31-inch-wide receptacle on China’s unoccupied Tiangong-1 space station. At the moment the two vehicles connected, by way of a yellow-painted latch, China became only the third nation, after the U.S. and the Soviet Union, to dock two spacecraft in orbit.
The first orbital linkups of American and Soviet spacecraft occurred in 1966 and 1967. To some observers, China’s third-place finish seems hopelessly late, and its overall space objectives almost quaint. “The U.S. and China are not racing in space, since the U.S. is so far ahead,” says James Moltz, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
But he, and others like him, could be very wrong. Beijing’s orbital ambitions may seem 50 years out of date and almost laughably rudimentary now, but there are plausible scenarios in which China could catch up to and even surpass the U.S. and Russia in space. Indeed, in one niche category — total space launches in a year — Beijing is already ahead of Washington, launching 19 rockets last year compared with America’s 18. (Russia still leads the world, with 31 launches last year, including several carrying American astronauts or cargo.)
Even taking into account the high-profile success of the Mars rover Curiosity, America’s space program is in obvious trouble. Having retired the crash-prone space shuttle fleet last summer, the U.S. currently lacks a manned spacecraft and must rent 1960s-vintage Soyuz capsules from Russia while it builds a next-generation capsule of its own. If development of a pricey new American capsule falters—and there are indications it might—Russia and China will be the only countries with manned spacecraft.