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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.