The three Chinese Shenzhou 9 astronauts are transferring about 660 lb. of supplies , about 60 “man-days” worth, to the Tiangong (TG-1) outpost for use during their nearly two week stay. Part of that cargo will also help support the Shenzhou 10 crew expected to spend about 24 days on the facility in 2013.
The first crew docked with and entered the Tiangong one room orbiting outpost June 18, a major milestone for China’s future manned space program.
The automatic docking at 2:07 p.m. Beijing time at 213 mi. altitude formed a Shenzhou/Tiangong facility stretching 64.5 ft. with three habitable areas, the Shenzhou descent and orbital modules and the 530 cubic foot TG-1 module.
The unmanned Shenzhou 8 had auto docked with TG-1 twice in late 2011.
Three hours after docking Mission Commander Jing Haipeng, 46, opened the hatch connecting the two spacecraft then floated in followed by flight engineer Liu Wang, 43, who later in the flight will pilot China’s first manual approach and docking with the module.
Woman astronaut Liu Yang, 33, then floated in once the male crewmembers had checked the interior’s atmosphere and temperature making sure it was safe for all crewmembers to leave the safety of Shenzhou 9.
Some open space for storage was evident in television views of the module, and other cargo launched with Tiangong 1 in late 2011 was likely behind side curtains in the module.
Only one experiment was launched on the module, a Belgian thyroid cancer investigation. “We plan to investigate the thyroid carcinoma cell line ML-1,” says Dr. Daniela Grimm with the Belgian Laboratory of Molecular Pharmacology.
Liu Yang is also beginning medical and nutrition experiments on the crew as a whole.
The Shenzhou and Tiangong modules mated using Androgynous Peripheral Assembly System (APAS) docking systems designed originally by the Soviets for the 1975 Apollo Soyuz Test Project.
The Chinese have announced that they are using modified APAS-89 docking units, the same design used by Russia and the U. S. to dock with the International Space Station.
The APAS is very forgiving to use when a docking is misaligned or likely to face high contact forces between several ton spacecraft.
In revealing the Tiangong Project, the Chinese highlighted that it was designed and led by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This left the impression that it was a military asset, which it is not.
But Tiangong 1 could be a dual use civil/military module. Images of the module taken on Earth have revealed two large imaging ports placed side by side on the Earth facing side of the spacecraft.
They will undoubtedly be used for land use and other civilian space imagery, but the ports are also placed so that a fairly large stereo military reconnaissance camera system could be mounted in the module. on later missions. As many as two more Tiangong spacecraft could be launched in the coming years.
The Chinese are rightfully proud of the Shenzhou 9 crew’s achievements and impressive mission objectives but some commentators are going overboard on the mission’s significance.
For example the “Asia Times Online” based in Hong Kong with readers throughout the Asia Pacific carries a story headlined “China Floats Towards Space Dominance”.
Its author Brendan O’Reilly writes, “The successful docking of China’s manned Shenzhou-9 spacecraft with the country’s Tiangong-1 space lab on Monday heralds a new age. A major shift in the world order is occurring above Earth, with the Chinese space program expanding as the efforts of other nations wind down.”
This experienced space journalist finds that statement overreaches. No country that has flown only 4 manned space missions in 9 years using a redo of the 50 year old Soyuz design–then takes till 2020 to build an orbiting outpost like the Soviet Union and U. S. had 40 years ago is not about to “dominate” the world in space any time soon.
Not to mention the U. S. achievement of sending 12 men to the surface of the Moon between 1969 and 1972 with the U. S now restarting a program to send humans well beyond the Moon.
China is also making impressive strides in military space, but it is also nowhere near overall U. S. military and intelligence capabilities that were being pioneered 40 yr ago and are highly mature now. The same goes for unmanned science where China has done little where the U. S. has led exploration of all the planets in the solar system including three rovers on Mars to be joined by a fourth August 5.
But Shenzhou 9 is making an important wake-up call that the U. S. and Europe can not afford to be stuck in low gear compared to the achievements already made.
“While piloted space flight typically lacks the scientific substance or military significance of unmanned activities, it can inspire a nation and capture the imagination of people around the world,” says Dr. Andrew Erickson, associate professor for Strategic Research at the U.S. Naval War College and a core founding member of the China Maritime Studies Institute there. He is also an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.
“Beijing’s constantly-unfolding accomplishments in this field are sure to draw even more attention to its scientific and technological progress and to raise questions in other capitals as to why they are not presently able or willing to launch their own astronauts into space,” said Erickson who has also worked on Chinese issues at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong, the U.S. Senate, and the White House.