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First Crew for Tiangong
by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Dec 05, 2011

File image.

The successful first docking mission to China's Tiangong 1 space laboratory has cleared the path for greater things to come. The flight of the uncrewed Shenzhou 8 spacecraft demonstrated two successful dockings with the laboratory, as well as showing that this new production model of Shenzhou also works well.

Chinese engineers can celebrate this successful mission, but they will have plenty of work to do in the weeks ahead. Every mission generates rivers of engineering data, and this will all need to be examined. Although there were no obvious problems, no space mission flies without generating a few minor anomalies. There will be a clear need to check everything that went wrong, as well as everything that went right.

China's state-run media have now gone fairly quiet on the subject of Tiangong. There was plenty of coverage during the Shenzhou 8 mission, and there's probably not much to be said in the near term. But spacewatchers are eagerly awaiting the next mission. The flight of Shenzhou 9 is expected to carry the first astronauts to inhabit a Chinese space laboratory.

Chinese media statements, as well as orbital decay studies by the British analyst Philip Clark, all point to a likely time for the mission. We can expect Shenzhou 9 to lift off at some time in the vicinity of late March 2012. This will give China enough time to digest the results of the Shenzhou 8 mission and prepare the next spacecraft for launch. It also coincides with the time when Tiangong will fall from its currently raised orbit to a more accessible lower altitude.

The Shenzhou 9 spacecraft should be identical to Shenzhou 8. China has already explained that the latest three Shenzhou spacecraft are mass-production models with an identical design. They are also believed to have been manufactured in parallel. This will certainly help to reduce the turnaround time between missions.

We know the spacecraft, but what about the crew and the flight? This author believes that the Shenzhou 8 mission was more than just a docking and spacecraft test. It was carried out as a close rehearsal of the upcoming Shenzhou 9 mission.

The flight duration of roughly 17 days, with around 14 days at Tiangong, will probably be repeated. Shenzhou 8 also carried two dummy astronauts, which simulate the metabolic functions of humans. This also gives clues to the crew size. We can expect Shenzhou 9 will carry two astronauts.

Who will they be? This author speculates that the two astronauts to fly on Shenzhou 9 will be previously unflown astronauts from China's original training batch.

China's first group of astronauts is generally believed to consist of 12 men, all of whom are Air Force fighter pilots. The group was assembled in 1998. There are also known to be two astronaut-trainers who underwent cosmonaut training in Russia, before returning to pass on their skills.

As befits a semi-secret program, rumours of extra astronauts who may have disappeared from the ranks still circulate. China has launched six of these men on three previous space missions. Thus, there are still six unflown members of the original group.

In the past, this author speculated that China could elect to fly an experienced astronaut as the commander of the first docking mission. This was a reflection of the potential challenges of the flight.

However, my opinion has changed. The flight of Shenzhou 8 was highly successful, and the two dockings were very smooth. The mission of Shenzhou 9 is still ambitious, but looks more easily accomplished than it did before. In any case, not even the experienced astronauts have ever piloted a real space docking before. For this task, every Chinese astronaut is a rookie.

So it makes sense to draw from China's pool of highly trained but unflown astronauts for this mission. China has indicated that the first batch cannot be expected to stay on active duty for too much longer. The program's high standards for physical fitness will eventually claim them as they age. If China does not fly these men soon, they may never fly at all.

China is also training a second batch of astronauts, but we don't know exactly how many of them are ready for flight. There are five men and two women in this batch, which was announced to the world (without naming the astronauts) in 2010.

There has been a lot of interest in the two women in this batch, who are apparently receiving some sort of accelerated training. It's clear that China wants to get a woman into space fairly quickly, and could be skipping over some less-relevant parts of the broader training program to get them ready for an imminent flight.

That mission is expected to be Shenzhou 10, which is slated for the second half of 2012. Shenzhou 10 will be the third spacecraft to dock with the Tiangong 1 space laboratory and the second crewed expedition to this module. After Shenzhou 10, it is expected that no other spacecraft will rendezvous with Tiangong 1.

Who will fly on Shenzhou 10? It seems generally accepted that there will be a woman aboard, but we still don't know who she will be. The rest of the crew is less easy to determine.

China could elect to fly a three-person crew. There will probably be at least one member of the original 1998 batch on board. The third seat could be taken by another member of the original batch, or possibly a male astronaut from the second.

2012 will see two crewed Chinese space missions in one year, a rapid acceleration of a notoriously slow-paced program. We look forward to the action.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer. Email Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.


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