With Latest Launch, China Plots Course for Space Station

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A Long March 2F rocket carrying the country's first space laboratory module Tiangong-1 lifts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on September 29, 2011 in Jiuquan, China. (Photo: Lintao Zhang / Getty Images)

Many countries set off fireworks to mark their national days, but few go as big as China. Sometime between 9:16 p.m. and 9:31 p.m. tonight (Thursday morning U.S. time) the country’s space program will launch Tiangong 1, an unmanned, 8-ton space lab module, into orbit, according to a statement by the China Manned Space Engineering Project. If the launch is successful the Tiangong module, Chinese for “heavenly palace,” will be aloft in time for celebrations of the People’s Republic’s National Day on October 1.

(Update: The Tiangong 1 was successfully launched at 9:16 p.m. Beijing time, the state-run Xinhua news service reported.)

Within the next six weeks a second unmanned vehicle, the Shenzhou 8, will also be launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. It will rendezvous with the Tiangong 1, and the two vessels will dock—a first for Chinese spacecraft. They will orbit together for 12 days before the Shenzhou 8 returns to earth. Two subsequent missions, the Shenzhou 9 and 10, are planned for the coming years to performing similar docking maneuvers with the Tiangong module. The missions are all steps towards the Chinese goal of building a space station by the end of the decade.

Wu Ping, a spokeswoman for the space program, outlined the goals of this mission in a press conference Wednesday. “The main tasks of Tiangong 1 spaceflight include: to provide a target vehicle for space rendezvous and docking experiments; to primarily establish a manned space test platform capable of long-term unmanned operation in space with temporary human attendance, and thus accumulate experiences for the development of the space station; (and) to carry out space science experiments, space medical experiments and space technology experiments,” she said, according to a transcript posted on the China Manned Space Engineering Project’s website.

China was the third nation to put a man into space on its own rockets, after the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. At a press briefing in April, Yang Liwei, China’s first astronaut in space, said he had seen the prestige a space program can confer on a nation. “China’s space program is for the benefit of humanity, but it also promotes the development of science and culture,” Yang said. “It also plays an important role in improving our prestige and national cohesiveness. That’s why people pay attention. When I fly in space, I’m proud of both the nation and of humanity.”

Right now, China could use a dose of that technological glory. On Tuesday a train on one of Shanghai’s newer subway lines slammed into another, injuring more than 200 people. No fatalities were reported, but the metro crash reminded many here of the deadly collision between two-high speed trains near the southern city of Wenzhou in July that killed 40. That disaster prompted widespread questioning about the safety of China’s rapidly developing rail network, questions that were revived after Tuesday’s crash in Shanghai.

China’s rail and space programs have both been promoted as symbols of the nation’s economic development and increasing technological prowess. This year the sheen has come off the country’s high-speed rail network, but its space program retains an image of competence and achievement. These days China’s rail passengers can only hope their journeys will be as safe as space flight.

Austin Ramzy is Beijing correspondent for TIME. Find him on Twitter at @austinramzy. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.