China’s first female astronaut and two other crew members emerged smiling from a capsule that returned safely to Earth yesterday from a 13-day mission to an orbiting module that is a prototype for a future space station.
The Shenzhou 9 parachuted to a landing on the grasslands of the country’s sprawling Inner Mongolia region at about 10am. China declared the first manned mission to the Tiangong 1 module a major advance for the country’s ambitious space program.
About an hour later, mission commander and veteran astronaut Jing Haipeng (景海鵬), 45, emerged from the capsule, followed by crewmates Liu Wang (劉旺), 43, and 33-year-old Liu Yang (瀏陽), China’s first female astronaut.
The three, all experienced air force pilots, were lifted on to folding chairs and appeared in good health. They smiled, waved, chatted and saluted as state television ran live footage from the landing site.
“Tiangong 1, our home in space, was comfortable and pleasant. We are very proud of our nation,” Liu Yang told China’s national -broadcaster CCTV.
Space program commander General Chang Wanchuan (常萬全) declared the astronauts in good health and declared the mission “completely successful.”
He was followed by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), who said the mission marked “absolutely important progress” for the space program.
The mission had included both remote control and piloted dockings with the module and extensive medical monitoring of the astronauts as part of preparations for manning a permanent space station.
China’s next goals include another manned mission to the module originally scheduled for later this year, but which may be delayed depending on an evaluation of the Shenzhou 9 mission and the condition of the Tiangong 1. China has been extremely cautious and methodical in its manned missions, with more than three years passing since the previous one, and all four have been relatively problem-free.
Chinese Astronaut Research and Training Center director Chen Shanguang (陳善廣) told a news conference that preparations and selection of astronauts were already under way for the Shenzhou 10 mission.
Tiangong 1 is scheduled to be retired in a few years and replaced with a permanent space station in about 2020 that will weigh about 60 tonnes, slightly smaller than NASA’s Skylab of the 1970s and about one-sixth the size of the 16-nation International Space Station that China was barred from participating in, largely on objections from the US.
Possible future missions could include sending a rover to the moon, possibly followed by a manned lunar mission.