China’s June 16 launch of the Shenzhou 9 mission on a Long March 2F rocket marks a highly colorful week at the Jiuquan Launch Center in the Gobi desert.
We present a picture summary here of the immediate events leading up to the launch of Shenzhou 9 and China’s first woman astronaut on a mission packed with challenging flight operations. In a coincidence the flight launched on the 49th anniversary of the launch of the first woman in orbit, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. But that historic point pales compared with the priorities of this mission.
The major milestones the Shenzhou 9 mission is achieving are:
–First Chinese woman in space.
–First Chinese manned mission to occupy a prototype space station, the Tiangong 1.
–First Chinese manually piloted space docking after auto dock initially.
—First Chinese long duration flight, planned for up to 14 days in space.
—First Chinese astronaut to fly his second space mission.
People’s Liberation Army Air Force Maj. Liu Yang, 33, China’s first woman astronaut is the medical officer on the flight joining mission commander Jing Haipeng and flight engineer Liu Wang.
Commander Jing is making his second flight into space. He was on Shenzhou 7, the last Chinese manned flight in 2008, so he is making back-to-back flights, a rare event in the U. S. or Russian space programs let alone on only the fourth Chinese manned mission. The other two crew members have the same last name “Liu” which is very common in China, but the two are not related. As is the Chinese custom on formal names, the last name is mentioned first.
The crew will auto dock to Tiangong 1 on Monday June 18, then spend several days linked, sleeping two at a time in the more spacious prototype station. They will then undock and make a manual approach and docking, a very critical maneuver for further space station development. They are expected to spend up to 14 days in orbit including additional time in the Tiangong after the second docking.
China hopes to build a 60 ton Chinese station by 2020, compared with the current 431 ton International Space Station planned to be still operational after 2020.
China plans to launch the Tiangong 2 prototype station in 2013, and its first crew is planned to include China’s second woman astronaut PLA Capt. Wang Yaping, rapid progress for a country that still has to put up billboards in the countryside telling the population to cherish girl babies.