China's great space station leap

China has successfully launched the first component to build its own space station, indicating that it is closing the gap with the big space powers such as the US and Russia.

Xinhua, Wang Jianmin/AP
In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, a Long March-2FT1 carrier rocket loaded with Tiangong-1 unmanned space lab module blasts off from the launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Gansu Province.

China launched an experimental space lab into orbit Thursday night, successfully installing the first building block in its planned space station and underscoring its progress in space technology.

The “Tiangong 1,” which means “Heavenly Palace 1,” was lofted into the heavens from a launchpad in the Gobi desert and will now be readied to dock with another unmanned craft next month.

If that docking – and a subsequent manned trip to Tiangong – go well, “we will have laid solid foundations to build our own space station,” due for construction by 2022, says Jiao Weixin, a space scientist at Peking University.

China would be only the third nation to have mastered space docking technology, after Russia and America. It became the third country to put a man in space by its own efforts in 2003.

Beijing is still, however, many years behind US and other industrialized nations who are partners in the International Space Station, in which China does not participate, says Isabelle Sourbes-Verger, an expert on the Chinese space program at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.

Six astronauts can live indefinitely on the 400-ton ISS, whereas two Chinese “taikonauts” will be able to spend only a week or so on the cramped eight ton Tiangong, testing its life support systems, according to Professor Jiao.

“This is just an experiment. There is no race,” says Dr. Sourbes-Verger. “The Chinese are playing technological catch-up, but this launch is important to them because it shows that they are making up the gap with the big space powers.”

Signalling the importance Beijing attached to the launch, all nine members of the ruling Communist Party Politburo standing committee witnessed the blastoff either at the launchpad or from mission control in Beijing.

China has so far staged a space walk and launched two lunar probes in what Chinese space agency officials have hinted could become a bid to be only the second country to put a man on the moon.

Cut off from space cooperation with western nations for decades due to US opposition, China has built its home-grown space program on the basis of Soviet technology, in contrast to other rising space powers such as India which has relied on technology transfers.

It has done so on a shoestring, according to Sourbes-Verger, who estimates that Beijing spends $2.5 billion a year on its civilian and military space programs, compared to Washington’s $32 billion annual budget.

While China scared other nations in 2007 when it became the first nation to shoot down a satellite with a land-based missile, military goals are by no means Beijing’s priority when it comes to space technology, Sourbes-Verger believes.

“Skill acquisition and applications such as telecommunications, earth observation, navigation, and meteorology are what’s essential to the Chinese,” she says, to judge by the way their space programs are designed. And while China sells its home-made satellites to developing countries, it still buys many of the satellites it uses itself from Western manufacturers.

Thursday’s launch, meanwhile, could be the first small step toward a distant goal – to be a full partner in an international project to send men to Mars. “In the short term we won’t have the technology to participate,” says Jiao. “But maybe in 30 years….”

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