Space Oddity? China Plays 'America the Beautiful' During Space Lab Launch

China launched the Tiangong-1 space lab module on a Long March 2F rocket.
China launches the Tiangong-1 space lab module Sept. 29, 2011 atop a Chinese Long March 2F rocket from the Gobi desert. (Image credit: CCTV)

China may have managed to launch its first space station module flawlessly, but it appeared to flub the soundtrack.

State broadcaster CCTV and the Chinese space agency collaborated on a short video to mark the liftoff of China's unmanned Tiangong 1 space lab Thursday night (Sept. 29), The Guardian newspaper reports. The 98-second video gives an animated look at the launch and Tiangong 1's mission — all set, puzzlingly, to an instrumental version of "America the Beautiful."

It's unclear why the patriotic American tune was chosen, according to The Guardian. [Photos: China Launches Tiangong 1 Space Lab]

"I don't know how to answer your question," Chen Zhansheng of the CCTV propaganda department told the newspaper. "I cannot help you."

The 8.5-metric ton Tiangong 1, whose name translates as "Heavenly Palace," is a key part of China's ambitious spaceflight plans.

China will use the module to test docking technology in conjunction with three spacecraft — Shenzhou 8, Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10 — that will be launched at a later date, according to state media reports. These planned robotic maneuvers will be China's first dockings in orbit.

The aim is to help pave the way toward China's first crewed space station, a 60-ton structure that the nation hopes to have in place by 2020. The United States and Russia first accomplished this feat in the 1970s, with Skylab and the Salyut space stations, respectively.

So perhaps China chose "America the Beautiful" as an homage, a way to honor the American accomplishments in space that have helped pave the way for successes like Tiangong 1. Or perhaps the selection was a shot across the bow, fired to serve notice that China aims to be a major player in the space arena for decades to come.

Or maybe the video's producers just liked the song.

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.