Chinese netizens hailed their country's first successful docking maneuver carried out by three astronauts on Monday, including the first Chinese woman in space, while activists said the money would have been better spent on pressing social issues.
The successful arrival of the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft at its rendezvous with the Tiangong space module is being hailed as the latest milestone in China's ambitious campaign to build a space station.
State media has given blanket coverage to the mission, with national television beaming live footage of the docking maneuver and the subsequent transfer of crew members from the Shenzhou to the Tiangong module.
Speculation over cost
Netizens on Monday passed around video clips of the mission, along with widespread speculation over the total cost of the mission.
Some estimated that the Shenzhou 9 had taken more than 60 billion yuan to build, while others gauged the cost of fuel alone at 3.6 billion yuan.
Sichuan-based rights activist Liu Feiyue, who founded the nongovernment group Citizens Welfare Watch, suggested that the money could have been better spent on many pressing social issues in need of funding.
"There are so many problems that haven't been resolved [in society], and yet they are going ahead with this high-profile project," Liu said.
"It's very hard to understand, because right now, China is still a developing country."
"Does a developing country really need a space program? I think they are ... doing this to win popular support for their continued rule," Liu added.
A political aim
A journalist identified only by his surname, He, from the southern province of Guangdong, said the authorities were keen to demonstrate China's rise on the international stage.
"This is to show that China has grown strong; it has a political aim," He said. "It is intended to make ordinary Chinese feel like their country is pretty good."
"But some people are saying that this isn't really very advanced technology, and that the Japanese could do this as well."
Rendezvous and docking exercises between two spacecraft are an important hurdle in China's efforts to acquire the technological and logistical skills to run a full space lab that can house astronauts for long periods.
During the 13-day mission, the astronauts will work and sleep aboard Tiangong 1, a trial module that includes an exercise bike and a video telephone booth, according to media.
Chinese netizens on Monday were focused on the participation of Liu Yang, the first Chinese woman in space.
They also discussed claims from fellow astronaut Yang Liwei that she had told examiners during her selection process that a fellow candidate had disclosed what topics were discussed in an English oral exam.
"The goddess flies to heaven," wrote user @yujingyun on the popular microblogging service Tencent. "This is the dream of Chinese people. Awesome! Awesome! Awesome!"
And user @dalianaikeai commented: "Actually Liu Wang is very pretty."
Some said she was "rotten at heart" for exposing her colleague, while others said she was ambitious, from a political family, and was bound to be a high-flyer.
“This woman is too scary!," wrote user @taifeng. "Even if you put her in a feudal scenario in the private courtyards of the imperial palaces, the emperor's jade throne, there wouldn't be anything she couldn't handle."
Microbloggers with female-sounding usernames seemed more sympathetic, however.
"There are two sides to every issue, and I still think she's a pretty cool woman," wrote user @RubieCJ, while user @wulanfang added: "Now everything is possible and we women can do things no one would think possible. I am truly very happy."
"Congratulations to this beautiful female astronaut. You are capable, charismatic, and pretty."
China's accelerated space program comes as budget restraints and shifting priorities hold back U.S. manned space launches.
This is China's fourth manned space mission since 2003 when Yang Liwei became the country's first person in orbit.
Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service. Additional reporting and translation by Luisetta Mudie.