THE LAUNCH OF the first of three modules of a permanent space station (above) marks another step forward for China’s human spaceflight programme.
Previous single-module space labs have allowed astronauts abroad for brief visits, but once fully assembled, the Tiangong Space Station will be crewed full-time by three astronauts and is expected to operate into the 2030s.
It will conduct experiments and offers China some opportunity for space diplomacy by hosting research projects and possibly astronauts from other countries’ space agencies, such as Russia and the EU (but not NASA unless the United States changes its laws forbidding it).
However, unlike the much larger International Space Station, a collaboration between the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia and the EU, China’s space station will be predominantly an all-Chinese affair to develop the core technology for Beijing’s ambitious civilian and military ambitions in space.
These include an eventually lunar landing and some form of continued human presence on the moon.
Technology development has been a distinctive characteristic of the space programme. Having a space station will add a sheen to China’s image as a technological leader, and like aircraft carriers, space stations are a badge of being a superpower.