| Global Times | 2012-6-18 2:10:00
By Xuyang Jingjing
The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft will automatically dock at Tiangong-1 Monday allowing its crew of three astronauts - including Liu Yang, the first Chinese woman in space - to stay inside the space lab module.
The manned spacecraft was launched Saturday evening and will complete its fifth and final orbit change around 5 am today. It will dock by remote control at around 11 am and part with Tiangong-1 six days later to prepare for its first manual docking, the China News service reported.
The 13-day mission has made headlines in both domestic and overseas media, which have highlighted Liu as China's first female astronaut in space and the mission's importance to China's space program.
If successful, China will become the third country behind the US and Russia to complete space docking. CNN called it a "historic moment," opining that there are great hopes for the development of China's aerospace industry.
China is well on its way to realizing its three-stage space program, which eventually aims to build an independent space station around 2020 when the current International Space Station (ISS) is set to retire.
"We are now at stage two, which mainly involves docking with space lab modules," said Hu Haifeng, a designer at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. "It will pave the way for building a space station."
China was excluded from the ISS program, a joint project developed in the 1990s, by a vote of the US Congress, which cited fear of technology transfers.
China has limited cooperation in space exploration with other nations and its exclusion from the ISS was one of the key motivations for it to pursue an independent space program 20 years ago, the AP reported.
The five principle ISS partners are space agencies in the US, Japan, Russia, Europe and Canada.
China's indigenous space technology can match most countries aside from the US and Russia though it still has a long way to go, according to experts.
"In manned space exploration, China is as good as, or in some aspects better, than Europe or Japan," said Hu. "China might still lag the US in terms of space station technology, but we have been exploring our own path since the 1990s and progress is steadily being made."
Morris Jones, an Australian scholar who has published a book on China's space industry, told the Los Angeles Times that the Chinese space program is currently roughly at same stage of development as the US space program toward the end of the 1960s, though clearly China is "not in a position to fly to the moon."
China is a latecomer to the space industry and no country other than the US and Russia has sent people to the moon since the 1960s.
"I believe we need to look at the technology and capability of our rockets and spacecrafts," said Hu, adding that the technical indicators are roughly on par with international standards.
The US military has expressed concerns about China's advancement in space exploration, which serves the purposes of military development, scientific research and resources.
But there will not be a "space race" like that of the Cold War-era as China is not "blindly developing" its space technology, said Li Daguang, a professor at the PLA National Defense University.
While most people have hailed the successful launch and the first woman astronaut as milestones, some Web users have been cynical about the mission.
"The launch of Shenzhou-9 has once again proven that it's more difficult to help impoverished children attend school or improve public access to healthcare and pension benefits than it is to send people into space," cartoonist Tian Jia posted on his microblog.
Li said it was "irrational" to view China's space program as taking priority over other social issues. "We are trying to improve people's livelihoods, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't develop our advanced technology," he said.
"Our government is not throwing money into space missions blindly without consideration of other aspects," Li said, adding that the space program is of strategic importance to a country.
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