Mangya, China – In an uninhabited area of China’s Qinghai province, two people step out of a tent into a landscape that resembles a planet in outer space under a sometimes sepia sky.
Wearing bulky and worn-out space suits, they start to wobble across the barren field. Behind them is a sign that says “Mars Camp”, and on top of the camp flies a Chinese flag.
Sitting in the far northwestern region of China, Qinghai’s terrain is dominated by deserts and Yardang landforms – sandy-coloured rocks and bedrock surfaces shaped by wind erosions – much like Mars.
The only signs that indicate this might not be the Red Planet are the off-road vehicles carrying dozens of tourists, and the photographers conscientiously taking Martian-like portraits of the visitors.
The Qinghai camp has attracted tens of thousands of tourists looking to live out their space dreams since it first opened two years ago and is one of at least half a dozen that have been set up around the country.
“We’ve always been interested in Mars and we didn’t give a second thought when we heard there was a Mars camp in Qinghai,” said Zou Xin’ang, who drove seven hours with his family to get to the camp.
From box office hit Wandering Earth, a space-themed Chinese sci-fi film, to live streams of rocket launches, people in China are increasingly fascinated with outer space.
Behind the growing interest lies the Chinese government’s own ambition.
The world’s most populous country did not start a manned space programme until 1992 – decades after the former Soviet Union and the United States – when the government passed legislation to formally commence crewed space missions.
But despite the relatively late starting date, progress has been rapid.
The country sent its first taikonaut – a term that originates from the Chinese word taikong (meaning “space” or “cosmos”) – into space in 2003 and positioned its first temporary module in orbit in 2011.
In 2019, it landed a rover on the far side of Moon – the first country ever to do so. At the end of last year, it also brought back the first rock samples from the Moon in more than 40 years.
In a more symbolic and significant step, the core module of the independently designed and assembled Chinese Space Station (CSS), dubbed Tianhe (“Heavenly Harmony” in Chinese), was successfully launched into orbit last month. The core module provides the astronauts living accommodation and central control station, and with a few more missions over the next two years to install the remaining elements of the station, the CSS is expected to be fully operational by 2022.
China was excluded from the International Space Station, which is a joint project of the US, Russia, Canada, Japan and the European Union, so the CSS is an opportunity for the world’s second-largest economy to extend its influence into the skies.
China envisions the CSS as a hub for future scientific experiments, including a much-anticipated Hubble-class space telescope with a field of view 300 times greater than that of the Hubble telescope, according to state media.
A little further away in the galaxy, China is preparing to land its Zhurong rover on the Red Planet sometime this month.
If successful – and landing is notoriously treacherous – China will become only the second country, after the US, to have deployed a rover on Mars. The Soviet Union almost managed the feat, but after engineering a soft landing, its lander failed in operation 110 seconds later.
Enhanced ‘soft’ power
Beijing’s space ambitions were laid out in a white paper in 2016.
It wanted to “build China into a space power in all respects”, it said, effectively challenging the dominance of the US.
In his congratulatory speech after the successful launch of Tianhe, President Xi Jinping also made clear that enhancing the country’s space programme was a ”major strategic step that would determine China’s future development”.
China’s gradual yet steady rise in space power, although lacking the intensity of the race between the United States and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, has raised questions about competition with the US as relations between the two countries back on Earth deteriorate to their lowest level in years.
In the US, with Taiwan and the South China Sea emerging as potential flashpoints, some are concerned that China might leverage its space breakthroughs to aid its military development.
“The United States is primarily concerned about China’s military space power,” Cornell University’s Lincoln Hines, whose work focuses on China’s space policy, told Al Jazeera. “It could potentially negate the US’s advantage in the context of conflict.”
Still, quite how China’s space programme will tilt the power balance between the US and China remains open to question, and experts have cautioned against exaggerating China’s space capabilities.
China is currently soliciting collaborations in space with a number of countries including Germany and Russia, with which it signed an agreement for a lunar space station in March.
The Tianhe itself will be smaller than the current ISS, which is due to be retired in 2024 unless its joint sponsors decide otherwise.
The station’s lifespan – approximately 10 years as indicated by China’s chief architect of CSS Zhu Zongpeng – is also significantly less than that of the ISS, and China was also criticised for allowing the remnants of the Long March 5B rocket which took the core module into space to fall back to earth in an uncontrolled descent.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement after its re-entry that it was “clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris”.
“It’s not exactly clear what China could gain tangibly from this, other than to exert a stronger soft power,” Hines said. “However, by investing large funding in the space programme, Beijing is also risking undercutting its gains in other domains.”
Nonetheless, the target audience of China’s space programme might not even be in the US, but closer to home.
The space successes have further stoked national pride among the country’s citizens – from the thousands heading to space camp to those discussing the developments in the virtual world.
“We are going to build a space station all by ourselves – that’s an amazing accomplishment for us Chinese,” one passionate netizen commented on Weibo shortly after Tianhe was launched.