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Half-Time for Shenzhou 10
by Dr Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Jun 19, 2013

Coverage of the Shenzhou 10 mission has been noticeably more restrained in China's media than it was for the Shenzhou 9 mission just a year ago.

At roughly the halfway point of its mission, the flight of Shenzhou 10 seems to be going well. The spacecraft lifted off beautifully on its first launch attempt and staged a successful docking with the Tiangong 1 space laboratory. Video images show that the crew looks healthy and in good spirits. The laboratory itself looks as good as it did when the crew of Shenzhou 9 departed.

Analysts had expected a safe and successful mission, but it's a relief to see it in reality. The overall performance of Shenzhou 10 brings more consistency to a program that has only staged five crewed space missions, and only staged two of them with the production version of the Shenzhou spacecraft. This will build confidence for future missions and possibly allow China to stretch the boundaries of performance a little further.

In space, things seem to be as good as they were on the last flight. On the ground, there have been profound differences. Coverage of the Shenzhou 10 mission has been noticeably more restrained in China's media than it was for the Shenzhou 9 mission just a year ago.

This has been frustrating for space analysts, and perplexing to explain. Again, this analyst speculates that the change of leadership in China between the missions of Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10 could be contributing factor to this policy shift.

Some "official" explanations for this rollback in coverage have been circulated in the media. It's been claimed that this has been done to avoid boring the public, and that China's space dockings are becoming more routine.

This is partially true. China's space program has certainly matured, but the suggestion that this should prompt such a massive cutback in coverage so soon is unrealistic. China provided a lot of coverage of the Shenzhou 10 mission on CCTV (China Central Television) prior to its launch, suggesting that space is still taken seriously there.

However, most of the coverage was "filler" material with commentaries and retrospectives on the history of spaceflight. CCTV was covering space and not covering space simultaneously! So the official explanations for the rollback don't fully explain the situation to this analyst.

There are more challenges to come. We await a temporary undocking of Shenzhou 10 from Tiangong, to allow an experiment with manual docking. This will probably be performed at a different angle of approach to the earlier automatic docking, and will be more challenging than the manual docking experiment carried out by Shenzhou 9.

If the crew fail to successfully dock with Tiangong 1, they can always return to Earth after a shortened stay aboard the laboratory. This analyst does not expect that to happen, and predicts a safe return to Tiangong.

A similar manual docking test was performed by the Shenzhou 9 crew, and it was broadcast live on television. This time, there will be no such coverage, despite the fact that piloting a spacecraft to a docking is one of the most important and visually interesting stages of a space mission. The lack of coverage of this docking will probably prevent space analysts from becoming backseat drivers on the mission, and studying the actions of the spacecraft and the crew too closely.

Shenzhou 10 will eventually return to Earth after roughly 15 days in space. Re-entry is one of the most dangerous phases of any space mission, but it's one that China seems to have mastered well. The very design of the Shenzhou spacecraft allows for a fairly straightforward return to Earth.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst. Email Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.


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