China will launch a spacecraft this month to conduct its first manned space docking, state media said yesterday, the latest step in a plan aimed at giving the country a permanent space station by 2020.
The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft and its carrier rocket have already been moved to the launch platform at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China, Xinhua news agency said, quoting the country’s manned space program.
The launch — China’s first manned space mission since September 2008 — would occur “sometime in mid-June,” it said.
Officials said the mission would involve three astronauts manually docking with the Tiangong-1 module orbiting the Earth.
In March, state media said China might send its first woman into space this year after including female astronauts in the team training for its first manned space docking.
Niu Hongguang (牛紅光), deputy commander-in-chief of the manned space program, has said that the Shenzhou-9 crew might include female astronauts, Xinhua reported.
China sent its first person into space in 2003 and has since conducted several manned missions, but has never included a woman.
After the space rendezvous, two of the astronauts will move temporarily into the Tiangong-1 (“Heavenly Palace”), where they will perform scientific experiments.
One of the crew will remain on board the spacecraft as a precaution in case of an emergency, according to the official quoted by Xinhua.
In November last year, an unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft returned to Earth after completing two space dockings with Tiangong-1 in the nation’s first ever hard-to-master “space kiss,” bringing together two vessels in high speed orbit.
Space docking technology is a delicate maneuver that the Russians and Americans successfully mastered in the 1960s.
Tiangong-1, China’s first space station module, was launched in September last year.
China sees its space program as a symbol of its global stature, growing technical expertise and the Chinese Communist Party’s success in turning around the fortunes of the once poverty-stricken nation. The current program aims to provide China with a space station in which a crew can live independently for several months, as at the old Russian Mir facility or the International Space Station.
In 2003, China became the third country to send humans into space after Russia and the US, and it is now also looking into sending astronauts to the moon, although nothing has been set in stone.