by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Oct 17, 2016
The successful launch of China's Shenzhou 11 spacecraft is worth cheering, but it's just the opening move in a major mission for this nation's space program. This will be China's longest human space mission to date.
For most of this time, Shenzhou 11 will be docked with the Tiangong 2 space laboratory. The two astronauts aboard Shenzhou 11 will spend most of this period living aboard Tiangong but will periodically return to Shenzhou for cargo transfer and other tasks. In total, the flight time of Shenzhou 11 will be more than a month.
There is no question that the crew of Shenzhou 11 are up to the task. China's astronauts are "right stuff" material, with excellent levels of physical and mental performance. More issues will surround the Shenzhou spacecraft itself, which is now being stretched to performance levels it has never previously experienced with a crew aboard.
This analyst expects that Shenzhou will perform as well as the crew who fly in it, but there will still be some minor levels of concern at mission control.
Shenzhou is intended to be the crew transfer vehicle for the future Chinese Space Station. It will probably remain docked to the Station for periods of up to six months, much like the way Soyuz spacecraft are sent to the International Space Station.
Keeping a crewed Shenzhou mission in orbit for more than a month is a critical step towards this goal. The design of Shenzhou is essentially fixed at this point. If Shenzhou 11 works well, it will suggest that Shenzhou is ready for missions of even longer duration.
It's also worth noting that this is the smallest crew for a docking-equipped Shenzhou spacecraft, not counting the uncrewed flight of Shenzhou 8. Shenzhous 9 and 10 both carried three astronauts. Even this is a sort of record for the smallest operational crew for a Chinese space laboratory.
With no third crewmember, there is extra room for supplies and equipment. Shenzhou 11 could thus also set a record for the amount of gear carried by a Chinese crew transfer mission.
Setting these new records represents progress for China's space program. But the records won't stand forever. Real endurance will begin in near future, when China's new space station becomes operational.
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst who has written for spacedaily.com since 1999. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.
China Manned Space Engineering Agency
The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
China News from SinoDaily.com
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