On June 18, China successfully conducted its first manned rendezvous and docking with the Tiangong-1 space lab module with the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft. Three Chinese astronauts – two men and the first woman in orbit for the country – then entered Tiangong-1 and set up shop in the 15-cubic-meter pressured space.
The first in-orbit docking was conducted automatically. Six days from now, a more challenging manual docking attempt will be performed.
China is conducting the docking exercises in order to build its expertise in transferring both humans and cargo to an orbiting space station. The country plans to build its own space station around 2020 using multiple modules.
Tiangong-1 was launched in September 2011 and the 8.5-metric-ton module has been in orbit for 262 days. In November 2011, the unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft conducted two rendezvous and docking exercises with Tiangong-1, as part of the preparations for today's manned docking.
The three members of Shenzhou-9's crew are Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut; Commander Jing Haipeng, China's first astronaut to travel twice in space, having previously flown aboard China's third manned space mission Shenzhou-7 in 2009; and Liu Wang.
During the 13-day mission, the Shenzhou-9 crew will be given much more flexibility in managing their schedule. Astronauts will be able to adjust their daily routines based on how they feel; previously, every minute was managed by ground control. If the crew feels tired during this mission, they can take a break and postpone tasks until later.
China's ongoing mastery of manned spaceflight activities has resulted in considerable discussion among U.S. political circles. The country sent its first person into space in 2003, with a Chinese astronaut conducting a spacewalk in 2008. The Shenzhou/Tiangong-1 flights are a precursor to a larger manned orbital station put together with multiple modules.
China's plan to put men on the moon has stirred up consternation in some circles – a capability the U.S. hasn't had since the early '70s. More conservative politicians have tried to China's advancing space capabilities as a rallying cry for more investment. Commercial space advocates have expressed concerns about the U.S. being left in second place, should China establish a solid presence in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) with a space station and establish a base on the moon.
A few U.S. astronauts have gone so far as to suggest Chinese success is a good thing as it will motivate policymakers and the public to direct more support to NASA.
Edited by Braden Becker