China launched the Shenzhou VIII in the Gobi desert today, bringing it one step closer to its goal of having its own space station by 2020. The unmanned spacecraft is to carry out a key docking mission, joining the Tiangong-1 or “Heavenly Palace” module. If it is a successful mission, it will be the country’s first docking in space, a key step on the way to meeting its lofty space exploration goals. China wishes to build a space station that will allow astronauts to live on board for months at a time, much like the current International Space Station.
Docking is an extremely hard technology to achieve as two objects in the same Earth orbit, both of which are travelling at around 28,000km an hour, must come together while not crashing into each other with force and destroying each other. The Chinese Government sees its space programme as key to its global image and place as a rising power.
China started the programme with manned flights in 1990 and in 2003 become the third ever country after Russia and the United States to be able to send humans into space.
The Chinese Government is well aware that it is only playing catch up in the space arena at present. The USA and Russia were able to achieve space docking in the 1960s. However, they see it as necessary to show they are a world power and economic force to be reckoned with.
However, there have been criticisms of the choice to spend so much money on space exploration while many in the country are living in poverty. According to the World Bank, 150 million people in China are still living on less than $1.25 a day.
If the mission is a success, China has plans to launch another two spacecraft next year to experiment further with space docking.