China sent its first space laboratory module into space Wednesday — just in time for the country's People's Republic National Day on October 1. What does China's historic launch mean? Here's what you should know:
How important is this launch?
Very. The launch this week of the 8.5-ton Tiangong-1 module — "Tiangong" is Chinese for "heavenly palace" — marks the nation's first step toward assembling a manned space station orbiting Earth. China will use this experimental module to practice docking maneuvers when another unmanned craft is launched later this year. When the actual space station is finished, sometime around 2020, it's expected to weigh in at about 60 tons — "considerably smaller than the 16-nation International Space Station, which is expected to continue through to 2028," reports Britain's Telegraph.
Why does China want a space station?
"It's prestige," James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for International Studies, told Bloomberg Businessweek. The country sees space as an arena that not only puts it "on a par" with the West, but also gives China a commanding lead over South Korea and India. It's the country's way of saying "we've entered the club" — especially now that the United States has ended its own shuttle program.
What does it mean for the U.S.?
NASA's goal now that the shuttle program is over is to scale back on "routine manned missions" and instead plan for future deep-space exploration. America's step back gives China an opening — and confidence. It won't be good news, Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, tells Bloomberg Businessweek, if China eventually corners the market on "ferrying individuals" to and from the moon. "Ceding human spaceflight to the Chinese over the long term would have significant strategic leadership implications."