BEIJING—China successfully achieved its first manned space docking, an important step in the country's quest to launch a space station by around 2020.
The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft on Monday docked with China's Tiangong-1 space laboratory. The mission's three astronauts included China's first woman in space, an air force pilot named Liu Yang.
China's political leadership has heavily promoted this week's mission as proof of the country's growing clout. Additionally, the Shenzhou-9 mission reinforced China's long-term aspirations for a manned space presence just as the U.S. has significantly drawn down its own manned space program and retired its ageing fleet of space shuttles.
The Shenzhou-9 mission is the first time China has sent a person into space since 2008. It follows China's first unmanned space docking last November and is the latest step in a 30-year plan to assemble a space station by around 2020, part of an effort known as Project 921.
When Chinese leaders approved a plan for a space station in 1992, "Chinese space professionals believed they would be latecomers to an expanding human presence in low Earth orbit," said Gregory Kulacki, a senior analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a recent research note. "Ironically, by the time they finish their space station in the early 2020s, the Chinese might be the only people left up there."
Washington's decision to end the shuttle program left Russia with a virtual monopoly over manned spaceflight. China's space program, while decades behind the achievements of the U.S. and Russia, has made steady progress in recent years. Its planned space station is expected to come online around 2020, just as the $100 billion International Space Station is expected to cease operation. The U.S., meanwhile, is hoping the private sector can pick up where the shuttle program left off.
Analysts say now that docking technology has been achieved, other significant hurdles to establishing a space station include the logistics of keeping humans alive in space for extended periods of time. A Chinese space station's launch will also rely in part on the successful development of the Long March-5 rocket, which officials have said will make its maiden flight in 2014.
Unlike in the U.S., where civilian and military space programs are by and large kept separate, China's space program is run by the People's Liberation Army. U.S. defense officials and analysts have expressed concern about a lack of transparency, and the potential for China's space program to contribute to the country's growing military capabilities.
"The space program, including ostensible civil projects, supports China's growing ability to deny or degrade the space assets of potential adversaries and enhances China's conventional military capabilities," said Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess Jr., director of the Defense Intelligence Agency during a Senate testimony in February.
In particular, according to the Pentagon, Beijing continues to develop antisatellite capabilities, which first received international attention after a 2007 missile test in which China shot down one of its own weather satellites. Additionally, according to defense analysts, China is developing the high-resolution optical imaging and near-real-time data-communication systems that will allow it to monitor U.S. naval activity in the Asia-Pacific.
Beijing also is seeking to cut its reliance on the U.S. Global Positioning System, which the U.S. could in theory deny access to in the event of a conflict. China's indigenous Beidou positioning system, which began offering initial services to China and surrounding areas late last year, is expected to have dual military and civilian usages.
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