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Sweet Dreams for Tiangong
by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Oct 31, 2011

The dream writ large.

At some point in 2012, astronauts will board China's first space laboratory, Tiangong 1. This will probably mark the longest Chinese human spaceflight so far, with astronauts expected to live on board Tiangong for around two weeks. It will also probably be more comfortable than anything previously experienced on a Chinese spacecraft.

Tiangong 1 is not a large spacecraft, but it will offer the crew a fair amount of personal space. Astronauts will fly to Tiangong 1 aboard a Shenzhou spacecraft, which will remain docked with Tiangong during their stay for the return to Earth.

At the time of writing, it isn't entirely clear what the astronauts will be doing on board Tiangong. China has made reference to planned experiments on the crew, and this is entirely believable.

The Tiangong module does not have a large amount of laboratory apparatus on board, meaning that the type of experiments that are typically conducted on larger space stations won't be possible.

Performing medical checkups on the crew, and evaluating their performance in measured tasks, is far more practical. It is also essential data for long-term flights.

In a previous article (Living on Tiangong), I noted that the interior of the module seemed far more crew- friendly than some analysts (including this one) had previously expected. Certainly, this will improve the comfort of the astronauts who will live on board the module, but it also has some other uses.

This author concludes that much of the experimental work carried on board the module will be ergonomic.

+ How long does it take to move across the module and switch on a computer?

+ How many times do you need to swap positions at consoles?

+ How many times do the astronauts bump into each other when they do their work?

+ These seem like mundane questions, but they can have a profound effect on the efficiency of a larger space station.

Tiangong 1 is filled with cameras that can see the interior of the module. Mission controllers will probably perform time-and-motion studies of the crew as they live on board the module. This data will probably be as useful as checking the reflexes of the astronauts.

One of the most pleasant features of the module is the inclusion of two sleeping berths. This will certainly allow the astronauts to sleep with more comfort and privacy than the sleeping bags on board a Shenzhou spacecraft.

It's also clear that these sleeping berths are probably prototypes of sleeping stations that will be used on a future Chinese space station.

But there's another useful reason to place them on board this mission. The astronauts will undergo biomedical examinations of their sleep patterns.

Placing them in a comfortable and isolated environment will shut out interference that could disturb sleep patterns. It will allow neurological and other biophysical factors to be monitored with attached sensors.

Scientists will also look for potential improvements in crew performance after a good night's sleep.

Circadian rhythms can be disrupted in space, where the sun rises and sets every 90 minutes. "Spacelag" can also impede health and performance. Some of the physical effects of spaceflight are difficult to counteract, but mastering sleep routines could produce major benefits.

This type of human performance science has been carried out in environments ranging from submarines to sheep shearing sheds. Carrying out these studies in space is not only useful, but mandatory.

All of these suggestions are merely speculation, but there are solid reasons for expecting that this is how astronauts will be examined on Tiangong.

The experiment program fits the constraints of the spacecraft and the time on board. It would also help to answer some important questions for future Chinese space missions.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer. Email Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.


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The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
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