A Chinese spacecraft yesterday completed the country’s first manual docking in orbit, a milestone in an ambitious program to build a space station by the end of the decade.
The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft linked with the Tiangong-1 module just over a week into a manned space mission that includes China’s first female astronaut, following an automatic docking on Monday last week.
“The success of the manual docking mission represents a major breakthrough. It was a precise and perfect docking,” Wu Ping (武平), spokeswoman for China’s manned space program, told a news conference in Beijing.
Veteran astronaut Liu Wang (劉旺) used a joystick-like device to carry out the maneuver, with state media describing him as “threading the needle.”
The move was the main goal of the 13-day Shenzhou (“Divine Vessel”) mission, testing the docking technique needed to be able to construct a space station — which China aims to do by 2020.
“The manual docking is a significant step for China’s manned space program,” chief designer Zhou Jianping (周建平) told Xinhua news agency.
“China has fully grasped ... docking technologies that are essential to building a space station,” he said.
Beijing 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.
China will invest a total of about 19 billion yuan (US$3 billion) in Shenzhou missions 7 to 10, Wu said, at a time when the US has scaled back manned space exploration.
The manual docking came the same day a manned Chinese submersible set a national record for a deep-sea dive by dropping more than 7,000m into the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, an achievement also hailed by state media.
The two spacecraft first came together in an automatic docking on Monday last week, and several hours later, the three astronauts on board Shenzhou-9 entered the experimental Tiangong-1 — a first for China.
Earlier yesterday, the two vessels separated in preparation for the manual docking, which state media originally said would take place at about noon, although it was not completed until roughly 45 minutes later.
Three hours after the docking, the three astronauts re-entered the Tiangong-1 to continue research on China’s fourth manned space mission.
China has already completed several automatic dockings, but the ability to dock manually is necessary in case of problems with the automatic procedure, such as the control center being unable to carry it out remotely from Earth.
The maneuver — successfully completed by the US and the USSR in the 1960s — requires great accuracy from astronauts because it involves two vessels orbiting at thousands of kilometers an hour coming together very gently to avoid destroying each other.