Photo Credit : CAST
On June 16, 2012, China successfully launched the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft, which carried a crew of three, including the country’s first female astronaut Liu Yang. The astronauts completed the country’s first manned docking mission, an important step in China’s ambitious plan to build a space station by 2020. The successful launch, from a remote desert in western China, powered by a Long March 2F rocket, was televised live from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi Desert. The crew came back on June 29, after docking with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space lab module—launched earlier in September 2011—to conduct experiments and live for a time in the space module.
In the year 1999, the space agency of the People’s Republic of China known as the China National Space Administration (CNSA), initiated its three-phase manned space programme described as Project 921. The project included the launching of manned spacecraft, establishment of a space station and eventually a mission to land a Chinese astronaut on the moon. Compared with the 400-tonne International Space Station or even the smaller Russian Mir or the US Skylab, China’s Tiangong 1 (Heavenly Palace) space lab module currently in orbit at an altitude of 343 km above the surface of the earth, is relatively small, weighing only 8.5 tonnes. Building a space station larger than Heavenly Palace and a more permanent one will be the third and last phase of Project 921, which is scheduled to be completed by 2020. This is expected to be followed by the manned lunar mission.
The notable milestones in China’s manned space programme so far have been sending its first man into space in 2003, a space walk by a Chinese astronaut in 2008 and now a manned docking mission with the orbiting space station Heavenly Palace. A remote controlled docking of the Shenzhou 8 with the Tiangong 1 orbital module was achieved in November last year. However, what made the fourth manned mission on June 16 of the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft particularly significant is the fact that the crew of three included China’s first female astronaut and the 57th in the world, a 33-year-old Chinese air force pilot named Liu Yang, mother of one. Liu’s mission made China the third country after Russia and the US to send a woman into space. The two male astronauts accompanying Liu Yang on the mission were Liu Wang and the Mission Commander Jing Haipeng. This two-week manned mission comes nearly four years after the last successful mission in September 2008. While by Western yardsticks, this mission may appear elementary and in technical terms a repeat of docking capability already demonstrated, it certainly reflects the level of aggressive commitment to Project 921, overall synergy in the Chinese space programme and the pace at which it is moving ahead. It is only a matter of time before China’s space endeavours will match or even surpass those of the other leading space powers. It would be reasonable to assume that China’s space ambitions will not end with the lunar mission but will extend to exploration of deep space and possibly manned missions to Mars and beyond. In the immediate future, several more docking missions however, will be required to be undertaken by the CNSA to complete the construction of the space station as well as for its sustained manning. Reports indicate that docking was successfully completed in less than eight minutes.