At 9:16 p.m. local time–that was at 9:16 a.m. eastern time here in the U.S.–China successfully lofted its first inhabitable space station module into orbit on the back of a Long March 2F launch vehicle, marking a milestone for both the People’s space program and for the Party’s geopolitical ambitions. China–the third nation (behind the U.S.A. and Russia) to independently launch manned missions into space aboard homegrown technology–now joins the old Cold War powers as the third nation to put a space station into orbit.
The 8.5-metric-ton Tiangong 1 (it means “heavenly palace”) is slated to stay in orbit for two years. During that time, China will launch three missions to rendezvous with the orbital lab. Shenzou 8 and Shenzou 9, launching in November and early in 2012 respectively, will be unmanned missions meant to test various rendezvous and docking technologies. Shenzou 10, also slated for sometime in 2012, could be a manned mission if the first two go smoothly. It could also carry China’s first female astronaut, Chinese space officials said.
There are two ways to view this achievement. The more cynical view says that China is only just now doing what America and Russia were doing in the 1970s (Tiangong is way smaller than Skylab and Mir, and America was rendezvousing in orbit during the Gemini days), and that projects like the ISS are light years ahead of the Chinese.
And that’s certainly true. But when you look at the window in which China has ticked these technologies off its checklist, the pace is impressive to say the least. Like nearly everything in China over the past decade or two, its space program is modernizing at a seriously ambitious pace. China launched its first man into space in 2003. Today it put its first space station in orbit, and by 2020 it aims to have a full-blown 60-ton manned orbiting station in place–the only space station belonging to a single sovereign entity.
And this is just the first step for China, whose space ambitions reach all the way the moon and beyond it to Mars. China plans to put a robot on the moon in 2014 followed by a manned lunar base sometime beyond that. And in 2013 a joint Russian-Chinese mission hopes to put a robotic rover on Mars. As the nomenclature of its booster rockets suggests, China is developing a long reach into space.
But all that depends, for now, on the success of Tiangong 1 and the three technology testing missions that follow. And how you feel about this initiative probably has a lot to do with how you feel about China. One reason China generally goes it alone in space rather than collaborating with other spacefaring nations like Japan or the U.S. is that China’s space program is closely tied into its military and therefore shrouded in secrecy. Should China become a dominant player in space over the next century–and given its current trajectory, it certainly could–the balance of power in orbit and beyond could begin shifting. Starting this morning.