China Takes First Steps Toward A Space Station, Launches Tiangong 1

As NASA’s steps get smaller, China’s space program is making big leaps with plans to have a manned space station in orbit by 2020. This morning (around 9pm in China), the Tiangong 1 space station module blasted off from a desert in the northwestern area of China. The reported purpose of this mission is to practice docking with other modules, which is essential to building a space station (obviously).

Tiangong 1, literally meaning Heavenly Palace, was carried into orbit by a Long March-2FT1 rocket, reports TIME. It provides 15 cubic feet of space in which up to three people can live and work. The plan is that the space module will orbit the Earth for about a month, at which point another unmanned spacecraft called Shenzou 8 will dock with Tiangong 1. This will be China’s first mission involving docking, and completion of the nine-year plan will make it the first country to launch and maintain its very own space station.

A prepared statement from China Manned Space Engineering Project spokeswoman Wuping:

The main tasks of Tiangong Ⅰ spaceflight include: to provide a target vehicle for space rendezvous and docking experiment; 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; to carry out space science experiments, space medical experiments and space technology experiments.

Short term goals aside, it’s worth wondering what China plans to do with this space station once it’s completed. It’s clear that China has been getting more and more aggressive with its space program, completing space walks, increasing the number of astronauts in each mission, and planning a trip to the moon by 2030. The overall goal, however, is still a mystery.

Check out footage of the take-off below: