China will launch its second space lab into orbit in the third quarter of 2016, Xinhua reported on Monday. The Tiangong-2 will be China’s second experimental space lab, bringing the country one step closer to a planned permanent space station.
Tiangong-1, the first space lab, launched in 2011 and has been visited by two manned missions, the Shenzhou 9 in 2012 and the Shenzhou 10 in 2013. It was intended largely as a learning experience for China, part of a longer-term plan to establish a permanently manned space station by 2022. Tiangong-2 will be the next phase of experimentation and development.
In 2014, Yang Liwei, the deputy head of China’s Manned Space Agency, told media that the core of the space station should be launched in 2018, and should be operational four years later. China plans to construct the space station modularly, with separate sections being launched in separate stages and docked together in orbit.
Along with the planned launch of Tiangong-2, Xinhua also announced plans for a manned mission, the Shenzhou 11, to dock with the new space lab in the fourth quarter of 2016. A cargo ship, the Tianzhou-1, will be launched in the first half of 2017 for docking with Tiangong-2.
Similarly to the development of its aircraft carrier program, China sees both strategic and symbolic benefits in becoming a space power. Aside from the military applications of satellite launches and anti-satellite capabilities, successful space exploration programs are valued for the prestige they bring – placing China in an exclusive club and thus helping achieve the “China Dream.”
In 2013, President Xi Jinping visited the Beijing Aerospace Control Center to speak with the astronauts of the Shenzhou 10 mission, whose three astronauts were still in space at the time. In his remarks, Xi made an explicit link between the “China Dream” – his signature slogan, calling for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” – and the “space dream.” Xi said that China’s space program was part of the overall “China Dream,” and pledge that “Chinese people will take bigger strides to explore further into space.”
Afterward, state media took up the “space dream” rhetoric. In 2013, after the successful launch of China’s Chang’e-3 lunar probe, Xinhua celebrated by saying that “The space dream, a source of national pride and inspiration for further development, is part of the dream to make China stronger and will surely help realize the broader Chinese dream of national rejuvenation.”