by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Jun 24, 2012
The first attempt at a manual docking by a Chinese spacecraft has been a success, but it still raises issues to be explored. The Shenzhou 9 spacecraft successfully undocked from the Tiangong 1 space laboratory and withdrew a few hundred metres under automatic control.
After a short solo flight, Shenzhou 9 was slowly piloted towards Tiangong by astronaut Liu Wang. The docking was broadcast live on China Central Television, suggesting that China was fairly confident of a successful outcome.
China can be justifiably proud of this achievement. The mission of Shenzhou 9 has steadily generated a growing list of major achievements, but this has been the most complex.
Manual docking is probably the most risky and dangerous feat that can be attempted in human spaceflight, short of landing a spacecraft on a runway or the surface of an alien world. China got it right on the first attempt, with little evidence of trouble.
Yes, this was a successful outcome, but it still wasn't perfect. It's true that automatic docking will always have the potential to outperform astronauts in some tasks. The final approach wasn't as steady and true as it could have been, even though it was eventually corrected.
This suggests that the manual controls aren't quite as responsive as they should be. Or perhaps Liu wasn't quite at his best. Soon after the docking, this author also watched as Liu Yang, China's first woman astronaut, prodded Liu Wang on the thigh to draw his attention to a control panel. Liu Wang then reached out with a stick to push a button.
The nature of the display and the button were not visible on television, but it seems that Liu Wang wasn't quite keeping pace with events at a critical stage in the mission. This raises another question. Is Liu Wang suffering mildly from space sickness, and has this affected his performance?
China's official state media will probably give no clues. But the manual docking has highlighted the rivalry between man and machines in space. Automatic docking remains the preferred choice for the Chinese space program, with manual docking as a backup option when automatic systems fail.
There will be a need to practice more manual dockings in the future, but they will probably remain of secondary importance to automatic systems. So far, machines are winning this contest.
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.
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