Hong Kong — China's ambitions for a space station of its own rocketed closer to reality on Thursday, as a Shenzhou-12 spacecraft roared to life and lifted its human payload into orbit. Just before dusk, Chinese state media proudly broadcast that the mission's three astronauts had safely boarded the station's core module, known as Tianhe.
The three astronauts will spend the next three months — China's longest manned space mission to date — aboard the bus-sized cylinder. Tianhe is the first of four modules that will eventually become the Tiangong space station. Tiangong, which means Palace of Heaven, is scheduled for completion in just 18 months, by the end of 2022.
"I am excited. It's not every day that anybody puts up a new space station," said Quentin Parker, Director of Space Research at the University of Hong Kong. "They really are serious, I believe, in wanting to emerge as a very senior science power for the benefit of all mankind, not just China."
Will China's Tiangong replace ISS?
China expects to complete work on its space station just two years ahead of the scheduled decommissioning and de-orbiting of the International Space Station (ISS), in 2024.
Launched in 1998, the ISS is now almost 23 years old. It cost $150 billion, and the U.S. paid $100 billion of that cost, with the space agencies of Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada footing the rest of the bill.
China has never been allowed to set foot on the ISS. In 2011, the U.S. Congress passed a bill effectively barring NASA from engaging with Chinese government agencies, including its space agency, on national security grounds.
The Chinese "did want to be part of the International Space Station," Parker told CBS News. "This is actually a result of the inability of China to be involved in the International Space Station because of politics — but what it's had the effect of doing, actually, is spurring China on. I think they've done it very impressively, frankly."
"I suspect that America will actually develop its own capabilities, and probably keep the space station going longer because it won't want to see China having the only game in town," he added. It's practically, technically, capable of going on for another decade, no problem. It's just extremely expensive."
Building space power
China's space dreams seemingly know no bounds — on Earth or above it.
The country now boasts the world's largest radio telescope, located in the remote mountains of southern Guizhou Province, after the U.S.' Arecibo radio telescope spectacularly. CBS News was the only U.S. broadcaster to gain access to the massive dish that spans an area larger than five football fields.
This past spring, China became only the second country in the world, after the U.S., to.
From now until the end of 2022, China will launch eight more missions to finish its space station, with three of them also set to be manned.
China's pride, America's prompt?
On Weibo, China's Twitter-like social media platform, the launch of the Shenzhou-12 was the most read topic on Thursday, with more than 1.1 billion references. Users posted comments of pride and love for their country.
"When foreign countries are still in the waves of combating COVID, life in China is normal. Meanwhile, we have accomplished such a magnificent space mission. It's so great to live in China. The Chinese government is badass. Long live the Great Motherland," posted one Weibo user.
"In the new round of outer space exploration, many experts predict China may overtake the United States and become the new leading country. Keep fighting, astronauts. Keep fighting for the Motherland!" said another.
Parker, at the University of Hong Kong, said the successful launch and docking by China on Thursday "may well be" just the kick the U.S. space program needs to push it into high gear.
"If you go back to the '50s and '60s, it was a rivalry, and competition between the Soviet Union and America that did launch a real space race to the moon," he noted.
Just this week, Russia and China unveiled plans for a joint, directly competing with NASA's own — yet more evidence that the space race never really stopped, it only reached higher, with more ambition — and some fierce new competition.
CBS News' Grace Qi in Beijing contributed to this report.