by Xinhua writer Li Huizi
JIUQUAN, Nov. 1 (Xinhua) -- About 1.5 km from a launch pad in the deserts of northwest China, crowds of people observed a rocket with reverence, waiting hours through the dark for the moment when the spacecraft departed for the heavens in a brilliant burst of light and sound.
At the vast Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, the unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft was comfortably seated atop a modified Long March CZ-2F rocket, illuminated by hundreds of lights at the launch pad.
Crowds of spectators waited early Tuesday morning for the launch of the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft, which is due to couple with Tiangong-1, or "the Heavenly Palace," China's first space lab module, within two days of the launch for the first Chinese space docking procedure.
In addition to Shenzhou-8, the orbiting space lab Tiangong-1, launched 32 days ago also from Jiuquan, will dock with Shenzhou-9 and -10 next year, with two or three astronauts aboard each of the spacecraft, including a female crew member.
The space rendezvous and docking, if successful, will make China the third nation to master the advanced technology after the United States and Russia, paving the way for the nation to place a space station into orbit around 2020. A space station is so heavy that its modules have to be launched separately and docked with each other in space.
The Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, also known as "East Wind Aerospace City," despite its location in the remote Gobi Desert, was crowded with visitors to the event of the Shenzhou-8 launch.
Space scientists, researchers, employees of aerospace companies and some of their family members took frequent shuttle buses to the launch site.
A 70-year-old woman took a seven-hour train from Lanzhou, capital of northwest China's Gansu Province, to the Jiuquan launch center to visit her daughter, who works in the launch center's hospital, and at the same time watch the Shenzhou-8 launch into space.
Senior officials from the European Space Agency and the German Aerospace Center were also invited to attend Tuesday's launch. Russian space scientists watched the launch of Shenzhou-7 in 2008 at the Jiuquan center.
Hotels near the launch center, such as Shenzhou Hotel, Flying Hotel and East Wind Hotel, were full of scientists, workers and reporters. Tuesday's spacecraft launch and Thursday's space docking test will be broadcast live on television.
"China's first space rendezvous and docking test will be broadcast live, which is very risky and unprecedented. People around the world will watch the event under their microscopes," said Dr. Yuan Jiajun, executive vice president of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and a major participant in the country's manned space project.
The docking procedure is one of the most risky aspects of the manned space program. China has never conducted a similar test before.
"It is fairly difficult and risky to link up two vehicles traveling at high speeds in orbit, with a margin of error of no more than 20 centimeters," Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China's manned space program, told a press conference Monday.
Tim Robinson, editor of Aerospace International, said the way in which China is approaching space docking is very different from that practiced by other counties.
"Unlike the U.S. who started with manually flown dockings, China is attempting an automated docking first and then manned dockings," Robinson said.
"This probably reduces the human risk to crew, but it is also very ambitious," Robinson said.
The U.S. and Russia acquired docking technology more than 40 years ago.
China's policy-makers hope to see more international cooperation in space exploration in the future, although it is sometimes difficult. The Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center has received senior delegations from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the U.S. Space Foundation in recent years. However, a previously approved request from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center for visiting the the U.S. Kennedy Space Center was later denied.
Dr. Yuan said the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center plans to send two commercial satellites into space for other countries next year.
International cooperation will also be featured in the operation of China's future space station, as the International Space Station operated by the U.S., Russia and other nations will plunge into the ocean after it completes its life cycle. After 2020, a China-made space station might remain in space as the sole human outpost.
China has started to plan a variety of experiments for Tiangong-1 and any future space station, which are expected to help combat challenges on the Earth, such as food safety and climate change.
With 20 minutes to go before the launch of Shenzhou-8, spectators became increasingly excited, with some taking pictures against the backdrop of the faraway rocket.
The rocket finally took off at 5:58 a.m. The sound of the carrier rocket blasting off shook the ground and tore at the air, leaving the visitors with deafened ears and awestruck expressions.
The launch of the spacecraft marked not just another small step, but a giant leap for China's manned space program.
(Xinhua writer Zhou Erjie also contributed to this story.)