China spacecraft dock together in orbit over Earth

BEIJING (AP) ? Two unmanned Chinese spacecraft docked above Earth successfully early Thursday, moving China one step closer to setting up its own space station.

The Shenzhou 8 craft that was launched Tuesday docked with the already orbiting Tiangong 1 module, said Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China’s manned space program.

The U.S. and Russia are the only other countries to master the space docking technique. It was “a milestone success and sets a sound foundation for continued missions,” Wu said.

The assembly already has orbited Earth six times with onboard instruments working normally, Wu said.

China launched its own space station program after being turned away in its repeated attempts to join the 16-nation International Space Station. That was largely on objections from the United States, which is wary of the Chinese space program’s military links.

Experts see no explicit military function for the Chinese space station.

In terms of technology, the launch of the Tiangong-1 places China about where the U.S. was in the 1960s during the Gemini program. But experts say China progresses further than the U.S. did with each launch it undertakes.

President Hu Jintao praised the docking in a message from France en route to the Group of 20 economic summit. Premier Wen Jiabao and other top officials watched the docking from an aerospace center in Beijing, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

China plans two more space missions ? at least one of them manned ? to meet up with the Tiangong 1 module next year for further practice.

Plans call for launching two other experimental modules for more tests before the actual station is launched in three sections between 2020 and 2022.

At about 60 tons when completed, the Chinese station will be considerably smaller than the International Space Station, which is expected to continue operating through 2028.

China launched its first manned flight in 2003, joining Russia and the United States as the only countries to launch humans into orbit. The Chinese space program also calls for one day landing on the moon, possibly with astronauts.