BEIJING (AP) — China’s third and final module docked with its permanent space station Tuesday to further a more than decade-long effort to maintain a constant crewed presence in orbit, as its competition with the U.S. grows increasingly fierce.
The Mengtian module arrived at the Tiangong station early Tuesday morning, state broadcaster CCTV said, citing the China Manned Space agency.
Mengtian was blasted into space on Monday afternoon from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on the southern island province of Hainan. It was expected to take about 13 hours to complete the flight and docking mission.
A large crowd of amateur photographers, space enthusiasts and others watched the lift-off from an adjoining beach.
Many waved Chinese flags and wore T-shirts emblazoned with the characters for China, reflecting the deep national pride invested in the space program and the technological progress it represents.
“The space program is a symbol of a major country and a boost to the modernization of China’s national defense,” said Ni Lexiong, a professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, underscoring the program’s close military links.
“It is also a boost to the confidence of the Chinese people, igniting patriotism and positive energy,” Ni said.
Mengtian, or “Celestial Dream,” joins Wentian as the second laboratory module for the station, collectively known as Tiangong, or “Celestial Palace.” Both are connected to the Tianhe core module where the crew lives and works.
Like its predecessors, Mengtian was launched aboard a Long March-5B carrier rocket, a member of China’s most powerful family of launch vehicles.
Tiangong is currently populated by a crew of two male and one female astronauts, according to the China Manned Space Agency.
Chen Dong, Cai Xuzhe and Liu Yang arrived in early June for a six-month stay on board, during which they will complete the station’s assembly, conduct space walks and carry out additional experiments.
Following Mengtian’s arrival, an additional uncrewed Tianzhou cargo craft is due to dock with the station next month, with another crewed mission scheduled for December, at which time crews may overlap as Tiangong has sufficient room to accommodate six astronauts.
Mengtian weighs in at about 23 tons, is 17.9 meters (58.7 feet) long and has a diameter of 4.2 meters (13.8 feet). It will provide space for science experiments in zero gravity, an airlock for exposure to the vacuum of space, and a small robotic arm to support extravehicular payloads.
China’s increasing space capabilities also featured in the latest Pentagon defense strategy released Thursday.
“In addition to expanding its conventional forces, the PLA is rapidly advancing and integrating its space, counterspace, cyber, electronic, and informational warfare capabilities to support its holistic approach to joint warfare,” the strategy said.