China rolls out Shenzhou-9 spacecraft for docking mission

CBS News

A Chinese Long March-2F rocket carrying a three-seat Shenzhou spacecraft was moved to its launching stand at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in north central China Saturday for work to ready the craft for launch later this month on a flight to dock with a prototype research module launched last year, Chinese space officials said.

The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft, mounted atop a Long March-2F rocket, was rolled to its firing stand Saturday for launch preparations. (Credit: Xinhua)
Three yet-to-be-named Chinese astronauts, possibly including the country's first female "taikonaut," are in the final stages of training for what would be China's first manned docking, according to Chinese news reports.

"The Shenzhou 9 will perform our country's first manned space docking mission with the orbiting Tiangong 1 space lab module," Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China's manned space program, was quoted by the Chinese news agency Xinhua.

"It means China's spacecraft will become a genuine manned shuttle tool between space and Earth. It can send human beings to space stations or space labs. This will be a significant step in China's manned space flight history."

China became the third nation, after the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia, to launch a manned spacecraft in October 2003 when Yang Liwei blasted off aboard the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft. Shenzhou 6, carrying two crew members, was successfully launched in October 2005 and Shenzhou 7, carrying a three-man crew, flew in September 2008.

The Tiangong 1 -- "Heavenly Palace" -- research module was launched Sept. 29, 2011, to serve as a target for unmanned and then manned flights to test the rendezvous and docking systems needed for construction and operation of a Mir-class space station later in the decade.

One month after Tiangong 1 reached orbit, China launched the unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft, which carried out an automated rendezvous and televised docking with the research module two days later. The Shenzhou 9 crew preparing for launch later this month will attempt a manual docking.

Chinese space officials said earlier this year the crew might include a female astronaut, but the final selection will not be made until shortly before launch. Assuming a successful linkup, only two of the crew members will actually enter Tiangong 1, space officials say. One taikonaut will remain behind aboard Shenzhou 9 as a safety precaution.

The solar-powered Tiangong 1 is a prototype space station core module that measures 34 feet long, 11 feet wide and weighs about 8.5 tons. It features a pressurized experiment module where visiting crews can live and work and a "resource module" housing electrical power, propulsion and life support systems.

For comparison, the International Space Station operated by the United States, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan, is the size of a football field, weighs more than 450 tons and has a multi-module pressurized volume comparable to a 747 jumbo jet. It has been staffed with rotating crews of up to six astronauts and cosmonauts for the past 12 years.

While years behind the United States and Russia in manned space operations, the Chinese are committed to building a space station and developing their own space technology. Orbital rendezvous and docking technology "will lay a key technical foundation for China's building of space station and deep-space exploration," Zhou said during the Shenzhou 8 campaign.