Space exploration, until now the domain of only the United States and Russia, has a new player in China--which is opening up a new horizon in conquering this last frontier.
China has good reason to be immensely proud of its great leap forward.
On June 18, the Shenzhou-9 capsule with three astronauts aboard, including China's first woman in space, completed an intricate maneuver with the Tiangong-1 module without a hitch.
The docking was shown live on national television, fueling a festive mood across the country.
Beijing clearly hopes to leverage the event as an opportunity to enhance its standing on the world stage.
China Central Television's special live coverage lasted more than four hours and showed the Shenzhou-9 inching ever closer to the orbiting Tiangong-1 and the moment the craft completed docking procedures.
The ground crew erupted in applause and a clapping of hands when the astronauts waved to the camera with big grins after entering the module.
The astronauts blasted into space aboard the Shenzhou-9 two days earlier.
Beijing only announced the schedule for the Shenzhou-9 launch on June 9.
From that day on, Chinese media whipped up frenzied coverage on the two candidates who were vying to become the country's first female astronaut.
Both women's lives were put under the media microscope. In the end, 33-year-old Liu Yang, an air force pilot, was selected for the mission.
The project is a matter of national prestige as China endeavors to rival U.S. and Russian activities in space.
With the highest echelons of Beijing's leadership expected to be replaced during a Communist Party National Congress this autumn, the occasion is being presented as one of the supreme achievements in science and technology during the 10 years that Hu Jintao has been president.
Analysts say Beijing--despite its relatively limited experience in space exploration--is striving to take on a leadership role in drawing up rules on the use of space.
On the ground, China's moves to project its national interests in the South China Sea and elsewhere has put it in constant friction with its neighbors.
Beijing clearly intends to play a major role in setting rules in space development programs that are advantageous to itself, observers say.
In the West, some countries have expressed concern about the possible use of space for military purposes, but Liu Weimin, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said China's activities are all intended "for peaceful purposes."
He said China was ready and eager to embrace "international cooperation."
The successful docking marked an initial step toward building a space station, which China hopes to complete in 2020.
It took China only nine years from its first manned spaceflight to undertake a full-scale space mission.
China proudly stated that it integrated all available domestic technologies to achieve its goal of constructing a space station.
But manned space missions are not China's only goal. It also has a multitude of plans for missions to the moon, Mars exploration and eventual entry into the commercial launch of satellites.
China's rapid catch-up with the United States and Russia in space technologies has not only helped to bolster the nation's prestige but has turned the country into a serious rival for the two space superpowers.
China's space station will be about the same size as Russia's "Mir," which remained in use until 2001. Its main body will consist of three modules--a core module serving as living quarters for the crew and two experimental modules, and will be capable of docking with a cargo spacecraft and the Shenzhou manned spacecraft.
Each module weighs 20-22 tons, which is beyond the launch capacity of China's existing rocket technologies. That is why Beijing is developing the Long March-5 rocket that has a maximum launch capacity of about 25 tons.
The Long March-5 will rely on advanced technologies that are also used in Japan's H-2A rockets. When the new rocket technologies are completed, China will have a leading edge in terms of launch capacities.
That could also pave the way for China's entry into the market for large-size satellite launches, which is now monopolized by Europe's Ariane rockets.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said China allocated the equivalent of 200 billion yen ($2.5 billion) for space development in 2009, roughly the same spent by Japan.
"There is always the risk that (China's space station program) will be delayed or called off due to a slowdown in the domestic economy," said Teruhisa Tsujino, a JAXA official in charge of international relations.
"But so far, no major technological challenge have been found. I don't think it will be too long before the completion of China's space station is within sight."
(This article was compiled from reports by Kim Soon-hi and Seiji Tanaka.)
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