by Morris Jones for SpaceDaily
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Jun 11, 2012
After a long and convoluted saga, we are finally approaching the launch of China's next human spaceflight mission. The Shenzhou 9 spacecraft is expected to lift off in mid-June, carrying three astronauts to China's Tiangong 1 space laboratory.
It's been a long wait. China's last human space mission was Shenzhou 7, which flew in 2008. The gap between flights is almost four years!
The gap between missions has been lengthened by the fact that China's human spaceflight program has reached a new level of complexity. The "solo" flights of the past will now be replaced by more demanding missions where Shenzhou spacecraft dock with other vehicles.
It took long enough for China to debug its Tiangong 1 space laboratory and finally launch it in 2011. Later, the uncrewed Shenzhou 8 spacecraft was launched to perform docking tests with Tiangong.
As this year opened, it seemed that China was ready to launch Shenzhou 9 in the first half of 2012. Then more delays apparently set in. Strange reports appeared in China's state-run media.
Analysts noted that Tiangong seemed to be at a proper orbital altitude for an early mission, then watched as it was raised again, beyond the normal reach of a Shenzhou docking. Something seemed to have disrupted the original, orderly planning for the next mission.
Recently, it was announced that Shenzhou 9 would do more than just make the first crewed expedition to Tiangong 1. It would also carry China's first female astronaut. This surprised some Western analysts, who had expected to see a woman fly for the first time on Shenzhou 10, the next mission in the program.
It is possible that the Shenzhou 9 mission was originally flagged as an all-male crew, drawing upon China's first batch of trained astronauts. It's also possible that an eleventh-hour change was somehow introduced to the overall mission planning, causing the strange pattern of events that we have witnessed.
The sudden introduction of a substitute crewmember, or an entire substitute crew, would require some backpedalling. There would be a need to review training and planning. This could set a launch back, and this is what we have witnessed.
There's no need to explain why women should fly in China's space program along with men, but the sudden reshuffle does call for an explanation. It's possible that the inclusion of a female astronaut ahead of the original mission schedule was made for political reasons, and on the command of high- level cadres in Beijing.
It is no secret that China's Communist Party is struggling to preserve its public image in the face of some high-profile political scandals. A woman in space, courtesy of China's state-run space program, would provide some much-needed good news.
China has two female astronauts. We don't know who is likely to fly on this mission, nor do we know the identities of the two male astronauts who will join her. We also don't know who will fly on the Shenzhou 10 mission, which will probably launch in 2013. Will the second female astronaut fly on this mission? It's entirely possible, and it would certainly help to fix the gender imbalance in China's space program.
Only two crewed missions are expected to fly to the Tiangong 1 space laboratory. If this mission plan turns out to be correct, there could be two women flying to Tiangong 1 in the months ahead.
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.
China National Space Administration
The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
China News from SinoDaily.com
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China to launch manned spacecraft this month
Beijing (AFP) June 9, 2012
China will launch a spacecraft this month to conduct its first manned space docking, state media said Saturday, the latest step in a plan aimed at giving the country a permanent space station by 2020. The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft and its carrier rocket have already been moved to the launch platform at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwest China, the Xinhua news agency said, quoting t ... read more
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