China’s Shenzhou 9 crew returned to Earth today after a 13 day mission that included the first Chinese piloted docking, the first flight of a female Chinese astronaut and the first Shenzhou crew to occupy a space habitat, the Tiangong 1 module.
The Shenzhou 9 re-entry capsule, carrying astronauts Mission Commander Jing Haipeng, Liu Wang and China’s first female astronaut Liu Yang, landed in the central part of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region a few minutes past 10 a.m. China time (10 p.m. EDT).
The crew spent a total of 10 days at Tiangong, including one day when they reboarded Shenzhou 9 and backed it away so Liu Wang could pilot it back to the module for a manual docking.
The crew undocked with Tiangong 1 for good on June 28 , but Chinese space authorities did not say whether Shenzhou 9 left its forward orbital module docked to the habitat, or whether it has been left in orbit to carry on as a free flying spacecraft.
Under any event early June 29, just after using the Shenzhou 9’s main engines to perform the reentry firing, they commanded the aft service module portion of the spacecraft containing propellant tanks, the engines and other systems, to separate so it would fall into the atmosphere and burn up freeing the descent module for a controlled reentry.
Once in the atmosphere the Shenzhou 9 module flew a normal reentry and descended on a 12,917 sq. ft. parachute with red and white stripes.
Seven People’s Liberation Army helicopters were used to search for the capsule including one for each crewmember that was specially equipped and staffed to provide emergency medical treatment if needed.
The trio had launched into space from Jiuquan June 16.
“The docking is a technological milestone, and represents a significant advance in capability,” David Mindell, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told China Daily. “It is a difficult task and also a huge stepping stone toward future advances,” he said.
Retired NASA astronaut and shuttle commander Eileen Collins, told China Daily, the country’s major newspaper, that she hoped the crew had enjoyed their time in space. “It’s a very wonderful, human experience,” she said. “And as a former pilot, I feel a kinship with Liu Yang.