Yet more than national prestige is at stake: China is counting on its space program to pay huge economic dividends.
China is NASA's biggest rival in space exploration with plans to land "taikonauts" on the moon by 2036 and Mars thereafter. Along the way, President Xi Jinping hopes the space missions will spawn a wave of Chinese innovation in robotics, aviation and artificial intelligence, among other leading 21st-century technologies.
China's space program is generally shrouded in secrecy, yet Xi's government is now reviewing a proposal by top researchers to triple investments into scientific missions, according to Wu Ji, director-general of the National Space Science Center. The hope is that advancements made while building new telescopes, monitoring Earth's water cycles and improving satellite navigation will revive state-owned enterprises and inspire the startup of private ones.
"China has been relying on the knowledge discovered by others," said Wu, who's spearheading the effort to lobby for more space missions with possible economic spinoffs. "If China wants to rejuvenate the economy, it needs to put more resources into developing groundbreaking technologies."