China's unmanned spacecraft Shenzhou-8 successfully docked with the lab module Tiangong-1 early Thursday, another milestone in Beijing's plan to build a space station.
Shenzhou-8 blasted off on November 1 from a launch facility in the Gobi Desert in northwest China -- one month after the first space laboratory module Tiangong-1 was launched into space.
The two joined spacecraft will orbit the Earth for 12 days before separating and repeating the procedure. After two more days together, the Shenzhou-8 will undock from the module and return to Earth.
Premier Wen Jiabao and other top officials witnessed the historic event at the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center.
President Hu Jintao, currently in Europe at the G-20 summit, praised the nation's first space docking.
"Breakthroughs in and acquisition of space docking technologies are vital to the three-phase development strategy of our manned space program," President Hu said.
This three-phase development strategy will see China repeating the unmanned exercise in the coming year with astronauts, as part of its mission to reach the moon and to launch its own space station by 2020. If all goes according to plan, China’s floating laboratory would become airborne around the same time the aging International Space Station goes into retirement.
American and Russian aerospace engineers perfected space docking in the 1960s, but Wu Ping, a spokeswoman for China’s manned space program, said that Chinese scientists had come to this moment largely on their own, having domestically produced hundreds of components and instruments.
“This makes China one of the few countries in the world that can independently research and develop docking mechanisms,” Ms Wu said at a news conference on Thursday, describing the achievement as “a historic breakthrough for our country and a huge technical leap forward.”
Some Western scientists, however, said the successful mission provided stark evidence that the 20-year-old sanctions that limit cooperation between American and Chinese aeronautical engineers had failed.
The policy, imposed by Congress shortly after Beijing’s violent suppression of pro-democracy protesters in 1989, restricts scientific exchanges and blocks exports of space technology. Chinese scientists are barred from American space conferences, and China is not among the 16 countries whose astronauts are allowed to use the International Space Station.
In the two decades since it was frozen out of the world’s elite space club, China has relied on its own aerospace engineers, aided by lavish government financing, to chase its space exploration dreams. In 2003 came the first successful human space flight, and in recent years Chinese scientists have mastered the manufacture and launching of communication satellites, many of which are sold to nations in the developing world. In 2008, Chinese astronauts took their first spacewalk, and last year China sent up a second lunar probe.
Further, in 2007 Beijing successfully tested an antisatellite missile that alarmed Washington and angered many international scientists for rendering the target, an aging weather satellite, into potentially dangerous orbital debris.
Australian space analyst Morris Jones says the docking maneuver was a critical step forward for China's ambitious space program.
"This is a very significant step,"Mr Jones said. "Because if China could not achieve rendezvous and docking in outer space, they would be unable to operate a space laboratory, or build a space station or do anything complex in outer space. Rendezvous and docking is a basic, fundamental skill in space flight."
However, he pointed out that China is only now mastering skills that the United States and Russia have had for more than 40 years.
"I would say with the successful rendezvous and docking, China is probably at much the same level as the USA in the late 1960s,"Mr Jones noted. "Probably around the year 1967, I would say, is where China is at the moment."
Whether China achieves its goal of a space station remains to be seen, but this successful space docking is indeed a historical feat for the Chinese.
Report: China Reports First Successful Space Docking [VOA, 3 Nov 2011]
Report: China completes first space docking test [The Telegraph, 3 Nov 2011]
Report: China's Space Odyssey Comes at Critical Time [The Wall Street Journal, 4 Nov 2011]