Two unmanned Chinese spacecraft docked successfully and were orbiting the Earth together Thursday in a step that moves China closer to manning its own space station in about a decade.
The Shenzhou 8 craft that was launched Tuesday docked with the already orbiting Tiangong 1 module, said Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China's manned space program. The assembly has orbited Earth six times, with onboard instruments working normally, she said.
The U.S. and Russia are the only other countries to master the space docking technique. It was "a milestone success and sets a sound foundation for continued missions," Wu said.
The joint assembly will fly for another 12 days doing tests, then a second docking will be followed by two days' flight. Shenzhou 8 is scheduled to return to Earth on Nov. 17, she said.
"Our aim is to try our best to perform multiple tests within one launch so as to maximize our benefits through limited launches," Wu said.
China launched its own space station program after being turned away in its repeated attempts to join the 16-nation International Space Station. That was largely on objections from the United States, which is wary of the Chinese space program's military links.
Experts see no explicit military function for the Chinese space station.
In terms of technology, the launch of the Tiangong-1 places China about where the U.S. was in the 1960s during the Gemini program. But experts say China progresses further than the U.S. did with each launch it undertakes.
Two more docking missions with the Tiangong 1 model are planned next year, one of them manned. China will set up a space lab by 2016, Wu said, and its actual station will be launched in three sections between 2020 and 2022.
All the parts of the docking mechanism and the more than 600 onboard instruments were designed and made by Chinese state-owned and private companies, she said.
President Hu Jintao praised the docking in a message from France en route to the Group of 20 economic summit. Premier Wen Jiabao and other top officials watched the docking from an aerospace center in Beijing, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
At about 60 tons when completed, the Chinese station will be considerably smaller than the International Space Station, which is expected to continue operating through 2028.
China launched its first manned flight in 2003, joining Russia and the United States as the only countries to launch humans into orbit. The Chinese space program also calls for one day landing on the moon, possibly with astronauts.
Asked by a reporter what real benefits the Chinese government's investment in its space program brought to ordinary citizens, Wu said "It's fair to say that aerospace technology is closely linked to the everyday life of the people."
She said the benefits of past space travel ranged from the use of satellites for navigating in cars and television broadcasting to the designs of diapers for babies and the freeze-drying of ingredients used in instant noodles.
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