Pushing the envelope of capabilities in space is a slow and arduous task where small step after small step eventually makes its way to the ultimate goal. Even with today’s technology it still takes us the better part of a decade to go from concept to reality, especially if you’re trying to build launch capability from scratch. Hell even my current crush, SpaceX, has taken 10 years to get to the stage they’re at and that’s considered blindingly fast even when you compare them to the superpowers of the world. China on the other hand has proven themselves to be extremely capable, innovating at an extremely rapid pace.
So rapid in fact that I was sure I had already covered their most recent accomplishment, docking Shenzhou 8 with Tiangong 1:
China’s technological capabilities took a major surge forward with the successful docking in space today for the first time ever of two Chinese built and launched spaceships – orbiting some 343 kilometers in the heavens above at 1:37 a.m. Beijing time Nov. 3(1:37 p.m. EDT, Nov. 2). China’s goal is to build a fully operational space station in Earth orbit by 2020 – about the time when the ISS may be retired.
Today’s space spectacular joining together the Shenzhou-8 unmanned spacecraft and the Tiangong-1 prototype space station was an historic feat for China, which now becomes only the 3rd country to accomplish a rendezvous and docking of spacecraft in Earth orbit.
In fact the last thing I wrote was just over a month ago when China had successfully launched their Tiangong 1 prototype. In that time they managed to prep, launch and have Shenzhou 8 rendezvous with Tiangong 1 putting China on par with the small number of nations who have developed such capability. Over the next couple weeks Shenzhou 8 will un-dock and re-dock with Tiangong 1 in order to prove that the technology is solid. Once the mission has been completed Shenzhou 8 will return to earth for further analysis.
Launching two separate vehicles rapidly one after another is par for the course of any space program but what really surprised me was China’s plans for the next 2 craft to visit Tiagong 1. China has no less than 2 more missions planned before the end of 2012 and one of those will be a manned. When you take into consideration that China has only managed to complete their first EVA 3 years ago (a critical capability for keeping a station in orbit) having a manned station so soon afterwards is an incredible achievement. Going on their timeline we could see China have their own Salyut level space station before the decade is out, and that’s just incredible.
I’m hoping that with these accomplishments that both Russia and the USA recognize how valuable China could be for the future of their space programs and seek to include them in future endeavours. So far China is the only country explicitly excluded from participating with the International Space Station, most because the USA thought they’d be nothing more than a burden to them. Such rapid progress shows that they’re not only capable of replicating current technology but also innovating their own solutions, something which would be highly valuable to all current space fairing nations. It’ll take a long time for those political barriers to start coming down, but I hold out every hope that one day they eventually will.