Early this morning at 2:07am EDT the Chinese crew of Shenzhou-9, China’s 3-person orbital spacecraft, achieved China’s first-ever space dock with their Tiangong-1 space station. In doing so, China became the third country to carry astronauts (or taikonauts) to an orbital space station, and at least a billion people celebrated. The flight also brought with it China’s first woman into space.
Shenzhou, which translates roughly to “divine watercraft,” made its first flight in 1999. Since that time, China has been racking up space milestones on a consistent basis, following up with manned launches of Shenzhou in 2003, 2005, and 2008 and the launch of the Tiangong-1 module last year. For reasons that have not yet been revealed by the Chinese government, animated depictions of Tiangong’s launch were broadcast with an instrumental version of “America The Beautiful.” Other than that, there have been few anomalies.
Shenzhou resembles a Soyuz spacecraft in design, with an orbital module on one end, a service module on the other, and a re-entry module in the center, but it’s slightly larger. Both the service module and the orbital module are capable of flying autonomously, and both have solar panels for power.
The Shenzhou flies to orbit aboard a Chinese Long March 2F rocket. The Long March series has been around since 1970 and has also been receiving substantial and regular upgrades. The Long March 2F is a liquid-fueled booster first launched in 1999 and later upgraded to be capable of carrying human passengers.
China, having invested strongly in its space program over the last decade, hopes to use the upgraded Long March to make heavy inroads into the international satellite and satellite launch market. The Chinese announced earlier this year that they were aiming at 15 percent of the launch market and 10 percent of the satellite market by 2015, causing a ruckus in the US Congress and small weather anomalies in the office of Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia ( famous for his antipathy toward all things Chinese ). The latest Long March 5 rockets are about the size of the United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy and should in theory be capable of supporting lunar missions. The Chinese are currently hoping to launch sample returns by 2020, and manned missions some time later.
China announced its efforts to build its own space station last year after being repeatedly rebuffed by the U.S. from participating in the International Space Station. The Chinese station should be completed by 2020 and would weigh in at around 60 metric tons. For comparison, the International Space Station weighs in at about 450, although it was designed for a larger crew. The Soviet Mir space station, which was de-orbited in 2001, weighed in about 130 metric tons.
In design, the Chinese Tiangong Space Station strongly follows the Russian aesthetic of practicality. It resembles the Russian Mir, but it’s a clean sheet design and somewhat larger. Russian space station modules begin with an off-the-shelf pressure vessel meant for a propellant tank, and it’s possible that Chinese module designers follow the same practice. Tiangong-1 will be replaced relatively quickly over the next few years with follow-on modules and will itself be de-orbited as the new station takes shape.
The three main goals for this 13-day mission include health monitoring of the taikonauts, research on the effects of weightlessness, and development of overall taikonaut operational capability. These toolset goals are all part of the learning curve for any manned space program. The Chinese will probably require at least a decade to build up their own space capability to the point where safe long-term missions are capable. That’s not a problem for them, as the Chinese government is famously capable of making and following long-term plans.
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