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A growing competition: China and the U.S. space program, year by year

The first true rocket was fired by China in 1232, during a war with the Mongols. But by the time the Soviet Union and the United States pioneered modern space exploration in the 1950s and ’60s, China was largely out of the game. When the United States landed a man on the moon almost half a century ago, China was mired in political turmoil. The country didn’t send an astronaut into space until 2003.

But now it’s catching up.

Last year, for the first time, China launched more rockets than Russia. The nation also embarked on its longest crewed mission and completed the world’s largest radio telescope. It plans to land a rover on the far side of the moon next year, the first for any country, and put a probe on Mars by 2020.

Here’s a look at what China has done and how it compares with the U.S. space program. (This timeline is not intended to be comprehensive and does not include the substantial accomplishments of the Soviet and European space programs.)


CHINA

1956

China develops its first rocket and missile research institute.

Source: Handout

UNITED STATES

1958

Jan. 31: Explorer 1, designed and built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, is sent aloft from Cape Canaveral, Fla., aboard a Jupiter C rocket. It is the first satellite launched by the United States.

July 29: Spurred by the Soviet launch of Sputnik the year before, the United States creates the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA.

Source: Keith Srakocic / Associated Press

1960

China launches its first missile, the DF-1, a licensed copy of a Soviet short-range ballistic missile.

1961

May 5: Astronaut Alan Shepard becomes the first American in space.

May 25: President Kennedy challenges the country to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

1962

Feb. 20: Astronaut John Glenn becomes the first American in orbit.

Source: Vincent P. Connolly / Associated Press

1964

China launches its first biological rocket, carrying white mice into space.

1965

June 3: Astronaut Ed White becomes the first American to walk in space.

Source: Associated Press

1966

June 2: Surveyor 1 becomes the first American spacecraft to land on the moon.

1967

Jan. 27: Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee are killed in an accidental fire in a command module on the launchpad.

Source: NASA via Associated Press

1968

Dec. 21: Apollo 8 is launched; its crew would become the first men to orbit the moon.

1969

July 20: Neil Armstrong and "Buzz" Aldrin become the first men on the moon.

Source: NASA

1970

China launches its first artificial Earth satellite, making it the fifth country to send a satellite into orbit.

1971

Nov. 13: The Mariner 9 probe orbits Mars. It is the first craft to orbit another planet.

1972

Dec. 11: Eugene Cernan and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt become the last men to walk — and drive — on the moon.

Source: Harrison H. Schmitt

1973

May 14: The U.S. launches its first space station, Skylab.

1975

China becomes the third country to launch and retrieve a recoverable satellite.

1975

July 17: The American Apollo 18 and Soviet Soyuz 19 dock in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

1977

August and September: Voyagers 1 and 2 are launched.

Source: Associated Press / NASA

1980

Nov. 12: Voyager 1 reaches Saturn and begins transmitting images.

1981

April 12: Columbia becomes the first space shuttle to be launched.

1983

April 4: The second space shuttle, Challenger, is launched.

June 18: Sally Ride becomes the first American woman in space on Challenger’s second mission.

Source: NASA via AFP/Getty Images

1984

Jan. 25: President Reagan directs NASA to build an International Space Station within 10 years.

1984

April 8: China launches its first geostationary communications satellite.

1986

Jan. 24: Voyager 2 begins transmitting images from Uranus.

Jan. 28: The space shuttle Challenger explodes seconds after liftoff, killing all aboard.

Source: Bruce Weaver / Associated Press

1989

August: Voyager 2 begins transmitting images from Neptune.

1990

China’s Long March 3 rocket successfully launches the first foreign satellite.

1990

April 24: The space shuttle Discovery deploys the Hubble Space Telescope.

Source: Associated Press / NASA

1994

Feb. 3: Sergei Krikalev becomes the first cosmonaut to fly on a space shuttle.

1995

A Long March 2E rocket carrying a telecommunications satellite explodes after liftoff, killing six people.

1997

July 4: The Mars Pathfinder arrives on Mars and later begins transmitting images.

Source: Associated Press /JPL

1998

Dec. 4: Unity, the first U.S. segment of the International Space Station, launches.

1999

China launches its first unmanned spacecraft, Shenzhou 1.

2003

China sends its first astronaut into space.

Source: AFP/Getty Images)

2003

Feb. 1: The space shuttle Columbia breaks up on reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven aboard.

Sept. 21: NASA’s Galileo mission ends a 14-year exploration of the solar system’s largest planet and its moons with the spacecraft crashing by design into Jupiter at 108,000 mph.

2007

Oct. 24: China launches its Chang’e 1 spacecraft, its first to successfully orbit the moon.

Source: AFP/Getty Images

2007

Aug. 4: NASA launches its Phoenix Mars Lander.

2008

Chinese astronauts conduct the country’s first spacewalk, known as the Shenzhou 7 mission.

Source: New China News Agency

2009

March 6: The NASA spacecraft Kepler is launched, with a goal of searching for planets outside our solar system, in a distant area of the Milky Way.

2010

Oct. 10: Virgin Galactic, a private company, launches the first manned glide flight of the VSS Enterprise, a suborbital plane designed to take private citizens on suborbital spaceflights.

Dec. 8: The private SpaceX company launches a spacecraft into orbit and returns it to Earth safely.

Source: John Smith / Associated Press

2011

China launches its first space laboratory, Tiangong-1.

Source: AFP/Getty Images

2011

July 8: The space shuttle Atlantis becomes the last American space shuttle to be launched into space.

Nov. 26: NASA launches Curiosity, the biggest, best-equipped robot sent to explore another planet. It will reach Mars in 2012.

2012

Aug. 6: NASA's Curiosity rover successfully lands on Mars.

Source: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

2013

China lands a rover on the moon. The Jade Rabbit became a social media phenomenon.

Source: CCTV / AFP/Getty Images

2015

China launches its first homemade, solid-fuel carrier rocket, known as the Long March 11.

2016

China completes the world’s largest radio telescope, which will scan for alien life and search for black holes.

September: Launches China’s second space lab, Tiangong-2.

October: Launches Shenzhou 11, China’s sixth manned space mission.

November: Launches the Long March 5, one of the world's most powerful rockets.

2017

April 20: China launches its first cargo spacecraft, Tianzhou-1, an essential step for building its own space station by 2022.

Source: New China News Agency

2017

April 26: NASA's Cassini spacecraft sends word that it successfully completed its first pass through the uncharted territory between Saturn and its rings.

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech handout / European Pressphoto Agency

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Times graphics/data journalist Priya Krishnakumar contributed to this report.

Sources: New China News Agency, U.S. National Archives, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space and Los Angeles Times research

Meyers is a special correspondent.

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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