China’s credentials as a spacefaring nation were reinforced last night, with the safe landing of the Shenzhou-10 mission and its three “taikonauts,” Commander Nie Haisheng, Operator Zhang Xiaoguan, and Laboratory Assistant Wang Yaping. The trio completed an ambitious 15-day mission, the majority of which was spent aboard the Tiangong-1 orbital laboratory module. During the flight they successfully undocked and redocked Shenzhou-10 with Tiangong-1, conducted various experiments and Wang—China’s second female spacefarer—delivered an educational lecture to around 80,000 schools, and responded to children’s questions from orbit.
The final stages of the mission got underway with the final undocking of Shenzhou-10 from the laboratory module and a two-minute de-orbit burn, which commenced at 11:23 p.m. UTC Tuesday. This committed the descent module and its three human occupants to a hypersonic dive through the atmosphere and a touchdown in northern China’s remote Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Less than 20 minutes after the completion of the burn, in a manner not dissimilar to a Soyuz-TMA re-entry profile, Shenzhou-10’s attached service module was jettisoned. Impressive ground-based footage—aired on Chinese state television—showed the service module burning up, as planned, during its ballistic descent.
By 11:57 p.m. UTC, following a period of communications blackout as superheated plasma surrounded the descent module, the view of Shenzhou-10’s fully-deployed drogue and main parachutes came into the view of television cameras on the ground. The craft’s base heat shield was jettisoned a few minutes later and the mission concluded with a picture-perfect touchdown at 12:07 a.m. UTC (8:07 a.m. local time) Wednesday. Although the Shenzhou landed on its side, recovery forces were quickly on hand to open the hatch. Over the course of the next hour, first Nei, then Wang, and finally Zhang were extracted from the vehicle and placed in recovery chairs. All three seemed in good spirits.
“It feels really good to be back home,” said Nie, quoted by the Xinhua News Agency.
This concludes the second and last human mission to Tiangong-1, which was launched into orbit in September 2011 as an experimental testbed to evaluate rendezvous and docking capabilities. It was previously visited by the unmanned Shenzhou-8 in November 2011 and by the piloted Shenzhou-9—whose three-member crew included China’s first woman in space, Liu Yang—back in June of last year. It is expected to re-enter the atmosphere to destruction in September 2013, although its success will prove invaluable as China strives to establish a larger, “modular” space station in low-Earth orbit, perhaps by 2020.
Weighing 19,000 pounds, with a pressurized habitable volume of about 530 cubic feet, Tiangong-1 consists of a resource module and an experimental module, and images transmitted back to Earth by both the Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 crews indicated that it is comparatively spacious. It has only two sleep stations, thus requiring the third member of each crew to retire to the ferry spacecraft after each work shift.
Shenzhou-10—China’s fifth piloted space mission—was launched into orbit at 9:38 a.m. UTC (5:38 p.m. local time) on 11 June, atop a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Inner Mongolia. In command, Nie Haisheng became the first Chinese taikonaut of general-officer rank to fly into space, having been promoted before launch to Major-General within the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). He is only the second spacefarer in history, after Apollo-Soyuz crewman Tom Stafford, to have reached general-officer rank before a space mission. A veteran fighter pilot, Nie previously flew aboard the five-day Shenzhou-6 mission in October 2005 and on Shenzhou-10 became the second Chinese taikonaut to chalk up two spaceflights. He also has an asteroid named in his honor.
Although Nie was in command of Shenzhou-10, the rendezvous expert was Operator Zhang, a PLAAF colonel and former squadron commander, with the third seat taken by PLAAF captain Wang, upon whom fell the primary responsibility of scientific research. As well as becoming China’s second woman in space, Wang was also one of only two women—the other being NASA’s Karen Nyberg, aboard the International Space Station—to be in orbit for the 50th anniversary of Valentina Tereshkova’s historic flight on 16-19 June.
Nie, Zhang, and Wang successfully docked with Tiangong-1 at 5:11 a.m. UTC on 13 June and hatches between the spacecraft and the orbital laboratory were opened around three hours later. During the early stages of their mission, the taikonauts replaced part of the laboratory’s interior cladding, marking the first instance of orbital maintenance aboard a Chinese spacecraft, and on 20 June Wang delivered a 41-minute video lecture to schoolchildren. She demonstrated the peculiarities of the microgravity environment, using her crewmates, a floating “ball” of water, and a spinning top as aids.
A successful undocking and redocking test was conducted on 22-23 June, in which Shenzhou-10 separated from Tiangong-1 and maneuvered to a distance of about 460 feet and returned to the orbital laboratory after about 90 minutes. The following day, Chinese President Xi Jinping—who had earlier been on hand at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre to witness Shenzhou-10’s rise into space—spoke to them by video link. He congratulated them on the progress of their mission and upon the successful docking exercise. “The space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger,” he told them. “With the development of space programs, the Chinese people will take bigger strides to explore further into space.”
The safe return of Nei, Zhang, and Wang comes only a few months shy of the tenth anniversary since China’s first man in space, Yang Liwei, was launched aboard Shenzhou-5 in October 2003. His 21-hour flight has been eclipsed many times in the span of a quite astonishing decade of Chinese human space achievements. In October 2005, Shenzhou-6 crewmen Fei Junlong and Nei Haisheng spent five days in orbit, after which the three-day Shenzhou-7 carried three taikonauts—Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming, and Jing Haipeng—in September 2008.
During this latter mission, Zhai became the first Chinese spacewalker, aided by Liu who performed a stand-up EVA in the hatch to hand him a national flag to “wave,” patriotically, for the cameras. Most recently, the unmanned Shenzhou-8 and last June’s 13-day Shenzhou-9 mission have involved close rendezvous and docking operations with Tiangong-1. Aboard last year’s mission were Shenzhou-7 veteran Jing Haipeng in command, joined by Liu Wang and woman taikonaut Liu Yang. The completion of the 15-day Shenzhou-10 mission establishes a new record for the longest Chinese spaceflight so far.
The Shenzhou program has been a phenomenon to witness over the past ten years. Yang Liwei’s pioneering flight was not unexpected, but the vigor with which China has pursued its dreams of human space exploration having been dramatic and impressively ambitious in their scope. In a very real sense, the last decade has been a Chinese microcosm of the early Soviet human space era, spread over an almost equivalent period of time: first man in space, followed by first spacewalker about three years later, and an experimental space station by the end of the first decade of operations.
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese remain tight-lipped about the future, although it seems likely that the next-generation Tiangong-2 laboratory will rise from Earth in 2015, offering expanded capabilities—including a second docking port—and sustaining taikonaut crews for up to 20 days at a time. A subsequent Tiangong-3 may then include axial ports for additional modules, preparing the road for a fully-fledged Chinese modular space station in 2020 or shortly thereafter. Significantly, the Chinese have differentiated between the “experimental” nature of Shenzhou-9 and the “operational” role of Shenzhou-10.
Perhaps the best summary came from Shenzhou-10 crewman Zhang, who beamed as he was removed from the capsule after his first space mission. “We are dreamers,” he was quoted by the Xinhua News Agency as saying. “Our space dream knows no boundary, and our hard work will never cease.”
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