by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Mar 05, 2012
After enduring some confusing reportage by the Chinese media, the future of China's next astronaut mission is becoming a little clearer.
It now seems certain that the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, expected to launch in July or August, will carry three astronauts to China's Tiangong 1 space laboratory. Previous statements claim that the mission will last around 10 days. It seems likely that the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft will be docked with Tiangong for roughly a week, or perhaps a little longer.
This author expects that all three astronauts will be men, and members of the original group of Shenzhou astronauts who were selected in 1998.
The strange cycle of claims that were previously made about Shenzhou 9 seem to have been passed, but it's worth considering their background. It's possible that this analyst, and others, were confused by some bad reporting about an uncrewed mission for Shenzhou 9 earlier this year.
However, it's also possible that some genuine tensions within the program were uncovered. Some managers within the program could have been concerned about the next mission, and there could have been some opposition to including a crew.
The reportage was a strange contrast to a generally improving level of coverage of China's space program. This writer accepts that there will be a crew aboard Shenzhou 9, but still wonders about what sort of arguments have been taking place behind closed doors.
The latest report in China's state media also contains another useful fact. One of the three astronauts will remain on board the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft while the other two inhabit the Tiangong 1 space laboratory.
This is not really a big surprise. Tiangong's interior suggested that it was built to accommodate a crew of two, such as the provision of only two sleeping berths. This author had previously speculated that a three-astronaut crew would leave one astronaut sleeping on board Shenzhou. It now seems that he will be doing more than just sleeping there.
Leaving an astronaut on board Shenzhou 9 means that the "getaway car" should always be ready for a quick dash. This means that it will be possible to evacuate the Tiangong module quickly in an emergency. It would also mean that Shenzhou could also begin a quick return to Earth.
This means that there will be no sleep for Shenzhou. Presumably, it will not be "powered down" in any real capacity after docking. It also suggests that Shenzhou will probably take on additional roles in supporting the crew on board Tiangong.
In previous articles, this author has pointed out that Shenzhou is likely to supply the main dining and toilet apparatus for the crew. There is no sense in duplicating these functions on the cramped Tiangong module when they are available on a nearby spacecraft.
Also, the use of a fresh Shenzhou spacecraft for every expedition to Tiangong would keep these facilities new and hygienic.
We could also wonder if Shenzhou will supply much of the oxygen supply and air scrubbing used on the docked spacecraft. This would also conserve logistics on board Tiangong.
The first crew expedition to a Chinese space laboratory will be historic. It will provide the first crewed docking for China, and also their longest crewed space mission to date. But it will also be a major challenge for logistics.
As operations of other space stations have demonstrated, logistics remains one of the most critical challenges in establishing a strong foothold in space. Exactly how China manages these tasks will be one of the most interesting revelations of the next mission.
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.
The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
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Launch of China's manned spacecraft Shenzhou-9 scheduled
Beijing (XNA) Feb 21, 2012
China will launch its manned Shenzhou-9 spacecraft between June and August this year, as well as conduct a space rendezvous and docking mission with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space lab module, a spokesman for China's manned space program said Friday. The space docking mission will be manually conducted by astronauts, giving China another chance to test its docking technology, the spokesman s ... read more
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