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by Morris Jones for SpaceDaily.com
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Apr 03, 2013
It's official. Wang Yaping, China's second female astronaut, will fly in space aboard the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft later this year. Chinese state media have confirmed her place on the mission in absolute terms. This is no longer rumour or speculation, but it's hardly a surprise.
Space analysts (including this writer) have treated this as a near-certainty for a long time. Their speculation was bolstered by stories that a woman would be included on the crew. With only two female astronauts in China, one of whom is probably no longer eligible to fly, the identity of Wang Yaping wasn't exactly hard to guess.
China's first female astronaut, Liu Yang, flew on the Shenzhou 9 mission last year. Although she remains an active astronaut in an official sense, most analysts expect that she will remain grounded in the future. She has gained a place in history, and China probably doesn't want to lose her in a catastrophic failure.
But mysteries remain about the crew of Shenzhou 10. We can say that there will be two other astronauts on board the spacecraft, both male. Beyond this, we have no official reports on their identities. The crew of Shenzhou 10 is still mostly in the shadows.
A pattern seems to be emerging with China's space crews. Missions now have an experienced veteran as their commander alongside the previously unflown "rookie" astronauts. This suggests that Shenzhou 10 will also be commanded by a veteran.
Long before Wang was officially confirmed for Shenzhou 10, analysts had firmed the odds on a likely crew for the mission. That crew was the alternative for the Shenzhou 9 mission. Wang Yaping was a part of this group. Her colleagues were Nie Haisheng and Zhang Xiaoguang. Nie is the veteran of the crew, having flown on Shenzhou 6. Zhang is a rookie from the original 1998 group of astronauts recruited for the Shenzhou program.
It still seems highly probable that this will form the prime crew for Shenzhou 10. It certainly fits the pattern. However, it is still possible that there has been a reshuffle of the Shenzhou 10 crew. Wang Yaping could be joined by one or even two different astronauts.
Flying the Shenzhou 9 backup crew would streamline crew training and procedures. It would also be consistent with the way that other space programs have "graduated" backup crews to prime crews for later missions.
Of course, we know very little of what happens inside China's astronaut corps. It is possible that one of the male astronauts has been ruled out for reasons that we cannot suspect. It has happened regularly to space travelers from other nations, sometimes just weeks before a flight.
China may also wish to alter the crew in order to fulfill certain mission objectives on Shenzhou 10. Although this mission will be generally similar to the flight of Shenzhou 9, which docked with the Tiangong 1 space laboratory, there could be some subtle differences in the experiments that will be performed. Has one of the other astronauts become a specialist in certain tasks? Again, it is unlikely, but not impossible.
It's understandable that releasing Wang Yaping's name early is useful, as it drums up interest in the mission. Everyone would like to see more women fly in space. However, China has traditionally announced entire crews with the one statement. If Nie Haisheng and Zhang Xiaoguang are on the mission, it makes sense to disclose their identities.
Perhaps we are seeing a compromise between the desire to publicize China's second female astronaut with the traditional pattern of secrecy of revealing Shenzhou crews, which are normally kept under wraps until shortly before the flight. Alternatively, some questions about the crew could still be unresolved.
This shadow crew is another intriguing issue for the upcoming mission. It raises more questions than it answers. Hopefully our questions will be resolved soon.
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.
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