China’s space program has taken another step forward with the launch of the first building block of a space station. A Long March rocket carrying an unmanned space laboratory, Tiangong-1, was sent into space from the Jiuquan spaceport in the Gobi Desert on Thursday evening. The photo above shows the craft blasting off. If the laboratory is placed into orbit successfully, a second module will be sent up in a couple of weeks to dock with it. Astronauts will follow next year. It will take a decade for the space station to be built out fully.
China was late into space – the U.S. first docked spacecraft in 1966 – but it is determinedly playing catch up. Like the U.S. and the old Soviet Union before it, China sees its space program as both fostering the development of advanced technologies for military and civilian use, and as a statement of its emergence as a world power. Witness the fact that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and fellow Politburo member He Guoqiang were in the Jiuquan command center for the launch while President Hu Jintao and six other members of the Politburo, including Hu’s assumed successor, Xi Jinping, watched the blast-off from the space program’s flight control center in Beijing.
State media is giving the latest launch a suitable fanfare.