updated 9/26/2011 12:49:25 PM ET 2011-09-26T16:49:25

With the U.S. human space program in transition, China is taking a bold step toward an independent path to orbit with the launch this week of a space station testbed.

Tiangong-1 -- Mandarin for "heavenly palace" -- is scheduled to blast off aboard a Chinese Long March 2F rocket from a launch site in the Gobi Desert on Sept. 29 or 30, Xinhua, the official Chinese government information agency reports.

The eight-ton module will serve as an orbital testbed for China to practice robotic rendezous and docking techniques, a necessary skill for the assembly and operation of the manned outpost China intends to build around 2020.

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China's next step in space comes as the United States retools its manned space program, following the retirement this summer of the space shuttles.

NASA has three human spaceflight initiatives under way -- staffing the International Space Station; supporting development of private sector space taxis; and designing a government-owned heavy-lift launcher and capsule for deep space missions beyond the station's 225-mile-high orbit.

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China pushed hard to be included in the U.S-led international partnership, which owns and operates the recently completed $100 billion complex. Rebuffed, China decided on an independent path to space, with construction of a space station scheduled to begin around 2020, followed by missions to the moon.

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"They have plans and they are implementing them. They really don't want to be working with us because we're too hard to work with," space policy expert Joan Johnson-Freese, with the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island, told Discovery News.

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Tiangong 1 will be used to test an autonomous rendezvous and docking system aboard an unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft China plans to launch before the end of the year, Gregory Kulacki, China Program manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Discovery News.

Tiangong 1 is the first in a series of test modules, similar to spacecraft flown and tested by NASA as part of the Gemini program that preceded the 1969-1972 Apollo moon missions and the 1973-1979 Skylab space station program.

China's space station will be much smaller than the International Space Station. It will weigh less than 100 tons, compared to the ISS's 1 million pounds. It is planned to have a core module, which will serve as living quarters for a crew, and two laboratory modules.

China says its space station will be used for scientific research. But since space technology inherently has dual use for military programs, as well as commercial applications, China's growing sophistication in space is a concern for some in the United States.

"I imagine it will have some impact on how people think about the U.S. space program, but I don't think it will have any impact on the Obama administration's plans," Kulacki said.

That thought rankles former NASA administrator Michael Griffin, among others.

"In my opinion, China understands what it takes to be a great power. We have written the script for them," Griffin said at a hearing before a NASA oversight committee last week.

"They are a near-peer competitor of ours and I would worry very much about the future of this nation if we were not -- and if we were not seen by all -- to be a world leader," he said.

"When the Chinese can reach the moon and we cannot, I don't see why any other nation would regard us as a world leader."

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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