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.)