That’s the outlook from John Logsdon, a leading space policy expert and professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at the Space Policy Institute within George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
Logsdon said that the Chinese space module will provide the target for gaining rendezvous and docking capabilities. Doing so somewhat mimics what NASA did during the two-seater Gemini program 45 years ago—making use of an Agena target to hone piloting skills, he said.
"But while all of Gemini's rendezvous attempts were controlled by the onboard astronauts, the Chinese are first attempting to do the link up with no crew aboard the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft. If China is successful in demonstrating automated rendezvous and docking, that will be a significant achievement," Logsdon said.
Unlike Agena, Tiangong 1 is also a small pressurized module akin to the Soviet Salyut space station of the 1970s and 1980s, and is scheduled to host at least two crews for several week stays during the Shenzhou 9 and 10 missions.
"So it is also a first step toward the larger space station that China is planning ten years from now," Logsdon said. "So while Tiangong 1 is a meaningful step for the Chinese in their plans to achieve comprehensive human spaceflight capability, it is not a threat to U.S. leadership in on-orbit capability."
The 'so what' factor
Given a new milestone in China’s space program, how best to gauge what this may mean for the United States?
That’s a much harder question to answer, said Joan Johnson-Freese, professor of national security studies at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
"Frankly, I don't think it will have much impact in the U.S. beyond the usual core of space enthusiasts and supporters," Johnson-Freese said. "With the U.S. economy in the state that it’s in, people worried about jobs and 401(k)s … and people feeling that Congress is focused more on politics than fixing things … I don't think what the Chinese are doing in space will register or have much impact among those who could make a difference to the U.S. space program."
Johnson-Freese added: "And another question is what difference would space supporters like it to make? Support for the James Webb Telescope? Start of a new exploration program? Expediting the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program? What are NASA’s priorities?"
Powerful political signal
There are several points to consider regarding the imminent lofting of China's Tiangong 1, suggested Dean Cheng, a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center in Washington, D.C.
"The most important point is that this is developing docking techniques and technology which, in turn, means precision controls for thrusters and the like, which has obvious military/anti-satellite implications," Cheng said.
In political terms, hurling Tiangong 1 into Earth orbit, Cheng said, is another reminder that China intends to be a space player for the foreseeable future, including the realm of human spaceflight.
Just as China's naval aircraft carrier was launched soon after they criticized the U.S. for spending too much on defense, undertaking the Tiangong/Shenzhou 8 mission at about the same time as the U.S. space shuttle program ends "is a powerful political signal that China is ascendant, and the U.S. is descending," Cheng said.
Asian space race under way?
Yet another reflection is the extent to which China's space station initiative is going to spur intra-Asian space competition, Cheng continued. By launching a Skylab-type vehicle—even if significantly smaller—China is, nonetheless, going to set records for Asians in space, he said.