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China Achieves Piloted Space Docking

Chinese astronaut Liu Wang, center who has just piloted China's first manual space docking joins raised hands with woman astronaut Liu Yang on right and mission commander Jing Haipeng out of site at top left. Photo Credit China Manned Flight Engineering

The Shenzhou 9 astronauts successfully piloted China’s first manual space docking June 24, by returning to dock with the Tiangong 1 module after the Shenzhou’s auto system had backed the spacecraft away from the outpost.

The mission’s flight engineer, People’s Liberation Army Air Force fighter pilot Liu Wang. 43, moved to the Shenzhou 9’s center command pilot position to operate the spacecraft’s controls for the docking.

The Tiangong spacecraft is imaged by television camera on Shenzhou 9 as it backs away from the module at the start of the manual docking exercise. Photo Credit:

Joining him in their pressure suits were mission commander Jing Haipeng,  who during launch and the initial docking June 18,  was in the center seat, but for the manual docking was in the Shenzhou’s right side engineer’s seat.  Medical officer and China’s first woman astronaut Liu Yang was seated at far left, as she was during launch and the initial auto docking.

The achievement was a major flight test goal of the Shenzhou 9 mission and important for more piloted, rather than simply automated, maneuvering in future Chinese space operations like assembly of a Mir class Chinese space station.

Shenzhou 9 camera looks through the vehicle's docking system petals as it separates from the Tiangong module with Earth's horizon in the background. The petals can muscle Tiangong back into line if first contact is skewed. Photo Credit:

China’s admission to the International Space Station is not simply a U. S. matter as many observes mistakenly believe. Chinese ISS participation with Shenzhou dockings could come only after approval by all primary ISS partners, where the U. S. opposes the move along with Japan that vehemently opposes it, along with some members of the European Space Agency.

Shenzhou 9’S piloted docking achievement is important for China, but from an historic perspective it pales in comparison to U. S. and Soviet operations that were truly a new aspect of space missions with significant operational unknowns in the 1960s.

Beijing Aerospace Control Center screen displays parameters and graphic of Shenzhou 9 at the 460 ft. (140 meter) hold point. Photo Credit:

The first piloted extremely close proximity operations between two spacecraft were performed in 1965 between the Gemini 6 piloted by Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford and the Gemini 7 crew of Frank Borman and Jim Lovell.

Then astronaut Neil Armstrong piloted the first U. S.  manual space docking 46 yr. ago on Gemini 8 in 1966 with David Scott–both destined to command lunar landing missions.

The Soviets did not make a manual docking until cosmonaut Vladimir Shatalov did it in Jan., 1969, on Soyuz 4, after Apollo 8 had made the first manned trip to the Moon a month earlier.  That same year the U. S. was poised to launch three Saturn Vs for the Apollo 10 lunar orbit mission and Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 lunar landings.

All the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions that involved rendezvous and docking did these operations manually. The Russians primarily use auto capability with the manned Soyuz, and unmanned Progress but use manual as a backup for both.

Mission Control screen displays graphic showing Shenzhou 9 on right as it approaches near to station module under manual control. Image Credit: China Daily

Also unlike the Chinese, the early American proximity operations and dockings were all done with manually flown rendezvous as well as dockings, as opposed to just the simple straight line fly in done by Shenzhou 9.

But more than just the docking itself, the Shenzhou 9 exercise will allow Wang on his return to Earth to critique the realism of Shenzhou simulators. This will specifically involve the television and glass cockpit displays, and the handling of the real spacecraft using its translation and rotational hand controllers compared with simulator control response and displays.  This will be a major benefit to all future Shenzhou crews.

Before the undocking, the crew prepared the Tiangong module, where they have been living since June 18, as if they were departing for good, in case they could not return and get back in. At the same time they were also prepared for a Shenzhou reentry and landing.

Mission Control display shows perfect alignment with docking target on left and view of Tiangong docking petals and its mechanical springs and mechanisms on right moments before contact at 0.4 meters per sec. Photo Credit : China Defense Mashup

First the auto system undocked Shenzhou 9 and backed it straight back 1,312 ft. (400 meters). Then after pausing there for checks  the auto system was commanded to move the spacecraft forward to within 460 ft. (140 meters).

After another pause, ground controllers at the Beijing Command and Control Center gave Wang a “Go” to begin the manual approach. He slowly piloted an approach back to a planned hold point at 100 ft. (30 meters).

Following another check with Mission Control and more checks, Wang then continued the approach at a rate of 0.4 meters per sec. until contact and capture with the Tiangong docking system (image below from Shenzhou 9). At contact all three crew members grasped hands and thrust them into the air.

The crew then went through the Shenzhou and Tiangong hatch opening checklists and reentered the Tiangong module where they will stay for another few days. They are scheduled to return to Earth on June 29.

Photo Credit: Xinhua


2 comments to China Achieves Piloted Space Docking

  • Karol

    Thank you for the excellent article Craig. Your ability to analyze information from your obviously very reliable, valuable sources in a logical, dispassionate manner makes for very interesting, informative reading. Do you have any insight as to why there is such resistance to China’s participation in the ISS? Japan is vehemently opposed, but China doesn’t seem to hold a grudge about Nanking, and if it’s old WWII issues, there’s always Coventry, Dresden, Stalingrad, etc. if we want to go down that road. There are those still concerned about “The Red Menace”, but China is communist in name only. With strict control of the media, laws forbidding labor unions, no worker protection, and virtually no regulation of businesses, it is more fascist than communist. China does have a form of national health care, but so do most of our allies. China is flush with cash from selling us everything from tampons to televisions, and buying up huge sources of scarce resources around the world while holding so much of our debt that if they sneeze, Wall Street catches pneumonia. They are pouring substantial resources into their space program, and don’t guffaw at the idea of a permanent lunar base. They methodically move forward while our space community, flailing about with nebulous goals of maybe an asteroid someday, fight over the scraps thrown to NASA. They hone docking techniques while our planetary scientists hold bake sales and car washes to fund research. If we are afraid that cooperation with China may give them access to military secrets, they can destroy us without firing a shot by dumping our treasury bills that they hold. Exploring beyond LEO is going to be very expensive, and the notion that there is profit to be made by the private sector in any such venture is, in the words of Dr. Tyson, “delusional”. What sense does it make to pretend to ignore the one billion human “elephant in the room”? At least they’re not smuggling bombs in their underwear to destroy our airliners.