China is launching its very own space station. Countries have achieved such a feat absent international cooperation only twice before—Russia's Salyut, in 1971, and the United States' Skylab, in 1973. After successful manned space flights and a robotic lunar lander, a space station would be a potent political symbol in an era when the U.S. has no means to get astronauts into space other than paying the Russians.
Because its space program is a subsidiary of the People's Liberation Army, some have concluded that China's designs on space are military, but thoughtful observers disagree: the association between the country's space exploration program and the PLA is about the past, not the future. Chinese lasers won't be raining down on us from space any time soon. The future of China's space program is not about weapons, it's about putting a Chinese man on the moon.
The thing about China—a nation led by engineers—is that through the vehicle of its 5-year plans, its government methodically pursues its stated goals. It's happened before in microchips, leading the Chinese government to develop a home-grown processor that may some day challenge Intel. And it's happening in space.
Human space exploration requires mastery of a succession of tasks: getting a human home from space safely. Spacewalks. Docking in orbit. Living in space for extended periods. The Chinese space program has accomplished all of these goals except the last; the space station completes the country's maturation as the world's current leading space power. The step beyond this program program would be the most public and visible demonstration imaginable of the country's ascendancy: it would mean reproducing the United States' most singular moment of scientific and military triumph, a boot-print on lunar soil.
The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program is led by Ouyang Ziyuan, a science-fiction futurist to rival David Brin and Ray Kurzweil. His first career was in geology and mines, and he sees the moon as a long-term solution to China's problems with energy and resource scarcity. He has pointed out that the moon is full of iron, and it's also full of helium-3, which can be used to power a nuclear fusion reactor. That's big thinking. With China mining the moon while we twiddle our thumbs at Cape Canaveral, we'll be forced to buy lunar minerals from them along with everything else on our shopping list.
You don't need a space station to get to the moon, of course, but you do need one to get to Mars. It's possible—even likely—that this prestige project is ultimately as much about getting to the red planet, a goal China shares with its Russian partners. Red China on the red planet: it's strangely poetic.
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