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.
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.