China has joined the space race. The Asian giant with a booming economy launched its Shenzhou spacecraft carrying three astronauts, including the 33 year-old Liu Yang.
The spacecraft will dock with the spacestation module Tiangong 1. Tiangong means Heavenly Palace in Chinese. This is the second step in China’s long-time plans to put a space station in orbit, rivalling the International Space Station. The target year is 2020.
While Tiangong 1 is nowhere close to the magnificence of the International Space Station, it has to be remembered that this is just a test module. The docking techniques being used by China have been mastered by only the Soviets and the Americans before. A space lab is on the cards and China is putting heavy stress on manned missions.
This is in complete contrast with the ambitions of the American space program, which is now focussing on unmanned and a future manned mission to Mars. While it has been only the Chinese government which has been funding and operating the space program, NASA has been encouraging private players like SpaceX and Orbital Corps into entering the space race. Of course, the end of the Space Shuttle program has a lot to do with that!
The Chinese are optimistic about their chances. Said Zhou Jianping, the chief designer of China’s manned mission:
I believe that we can achieve this goal, because we already have the basic technological capability
The Sino-US competition is getting hotter and, in a twist of fate, entering a space race just like the one of the Cold War days. History does repeat itself… hopefully in a more positive way.