SpaceX may have made history last month as the first U.S. company to launch a private mission into space, but the company now faces stiff competition from China, which had a historic moment of its own on Sunday.
The Chinese Shenzhou-9 capsule carrying three astronauts docked manually with the Tiangong 1 orbiting module, a first for China. The event was shown on live television across China.
Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China's manned space program, told reporters in Beijing, "This success in manual docking represents a major breakthrough in our space rendezvous and docking technologies.” The three astronauts had been living and working in the module over the course of the past week to prepare for the docking.
The mission, which launched on June 16 from the Jiuquan center in northern China, is expected to last 10 days. The crew includes China's first female astronaut, Liu Yang, who is a 33-year-old air force pilot. The astronauts will return to the capsule in 3-4 days, at which point they will return to earth.
As the U.S. turns over control of its space program from NASA to private companies, the Chinese government is doing just the opposite, ramping up spending on space missions. The country hopes to soon join the U.S. and Russia as the only countries to send independently maintained space stations into orbit. The government is spending $3 billion on its new initiatives.
Eventually, the goal is to replace the Tiangong capsule with a permanent space station around the year 2020. The country has also hinted that it may try to send a man to the moon.