Sometime later this month, China plans to launch a three person crew into orbit to rendezvous and dock with the country's Tiangong-1 space lab module. The crew of Shenzhou-9 will be composed of two men and one woman, marking China's first female astronaut as well as its first manned rendezvous and docking, if all goes as planned.
On June 12, Xianhua News Agency declared the first full system drill for the upcoming launch a success. The four and a half hour exercise tested all systems of the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft and the Long March-2F rocket as well as astronauts, launch center and ground support systems for the mission.
China plans its first manned space docking with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space module. Tiangong "Heavenly Palace" 1 was launched in September 2011 and is an experimental testbed to demonstrate rendezvous and docking mastery needed to support a larger modular space station China plans to launch into orbit by 2020.
Tiangong-1's first orbital visitor was the unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft. Shenzhou-8 successfully rendezvoused and docked with Tiangong-1 twice in November 2011, an accomplishment lauded by China's government. A successful manned rendezvous and docking would put China into an elite club made up of the United States and Russia.
The single-module Tiangong-1 has about 15 cubic meters of pressured volume and is equipped with exercise gear, two sleep stations and some experiments. Shenzhou-9 is expected to spend between 13 to 14 days docked to Tiangong-1 as its three person crew lives and works aboard the module.
One of those three people will be a woman. Various news reports list both the primary and backup three person crews composed of two men and a woman, giving China another accomplishment to put on its manned spaceflight resume. The former Soviet Union was the first country to put women into orbit and the United States flew 52 women during the run of NASA’s Space Shuttle program.
Both manned docking operations and putting a woman into orbit builds China’s space experience towards a publicly stated goal of putting a larger manned space station by 2020. Assembly and operation of a larger space station in the image of Mir or the International Space Station will require mastery of both manned and unmanned docking operations. Supply freighters to the Chinese station are expected to be based on the Tiangong-1 spacecraft.
The wild card in China manned space operations is its wish to be a partner in international projects. In theory, the Shenzhou spacecraft will be capable of docking with ISS. The Europeans have few qualms bringing China onboard, but some U.S. legislators are loudly against any sort of space cooperation with China. Since the U.S. currently pays the lion’s share of the bills for ISS, any Chinese mission to ISS is likely to cause considerable political headaches at this point in time.
Edited by Brooke Neuman