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China has successfully launched an unmanned capsule into orbit and is beginning to maneuver it into place for the nation’s first orbital docking.

State media reports that a Shenzhou-8 capsule successfully blasted off from China’s launch platform in the Gobi desert atop an upgraded Long March-2F rocket, watched by Chinese vice premier Zhang Dejiang. It was successfully inserted into its planned orbit, and ground control is now beginning to shift it into position to dock with the Tiangong-1 – "Heavenly Palace-1" – module that has been in orbit since September.

If all goes to plan, the capsule will perform China’s first space docking in two days’ time, 343km above the planet’s surface. After a number of practice docking maneuvers, the capsule will then return to earth for examination and testing.

Successful docking will be crucial if China is to reach its goal of putting a space station into orbit by 2020. Under the plans that are currently public, the station will be a small affair in comparison to the International Space Station or the de-orbited Soviet Mir platform – but out of tiny acorns mighty oak trees grow.

In pure technology terms, the Chinese space program looks relatively unsophisticated. After all, US astronaut Neil Armstrong managed the first space docking in 1966 during the Gemini 8 mission. The Soviets managed it in 1969, and by 1975 the two countries were docking with each other’s crafts. It wasn’t until 1970 that China even got a satellite into orbit – although it’s now been selling orbital delivery to other countries for over 25 years.

The Middle Kingdom wouldn’t have made it this far if it hadn’t been for the 1950s McCarthy-era panic over communist infiltration in America. Qian Xuesen, one of America’s foremost rocket engineers in the 1930s and 1940s, and cofounder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the US, was arrested in the US after visiting his parents on mainland China in 1950. Accused on the flimsiest of evidence of being a communist, and despite the strong efforts of his university, Caltech, Qian was deported to China in 1955.

Qian, who died at the age of 98 in 2009, is hailed as the father of Chinese rocketry, and was his country's first – and originally only – rocket engineer. He built a group of engineers on his return to China, and helped develop a variety of military systems, including the Silkworm anti-ship missile, as well as building China’s successful Long March boosters. ®

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