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Three for Tiangong
by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Mar 09, 2012

China has given a great deal of publicity to its two female astronaut trainees, who were a part of China's second batch of Shenzhou astronauts. Educated guesses from space analysts generally suggested that one of these women would fly on the second crew to Tiangong 1, which is expected to be the Shenzhou 10 mission.

The closer we get to the launch of China's Shenzhou 9 spacecraft to the Tiangong 1 space laboratory, the more confused space observers have become. We should have a firmer picture of the whole mission by now, but there are still some big unanswered questions. Media reports on the mission have been garbled and contradictory. What is going on?

This author believes that planning for this mission has been anything but straightforward. The overall pattern of reportage and disclosure is different from recent trends. This suggests that some details weren't fixed in place until recently, and that others could have been subject to dispute.

First, we noticed a gradual slip in the timeframe for the mission. This was not unusual. Complex space missions are lucky to launch exactly on time. But the slippage has now continued, and we could be waiting until as late as August for the mission to launch. Technical problems and preparation time could have caused some of these delays, but not all. Something else seems to be at work. It's entirely possible that the mission has been going through a reshuffle.

We also experienced the notorious "uncrewed" plan for Shenzhou 9 in state media reports. Yes, this was suggested as a possible option long ago, before Shenzhou 8 demonstrated docking procedures for the first time.

However, it was clear from other media reports that a crewed mission was now firming up. The recent reports of an uncrewed mission for Shenzhou 9 could have been a media mistake, but they contained information on the experiment payloads and quotes from fairly well-placed sources. This makes the reports sound more than a little suspicious, especially when they are placed within the context of other events.

It now seems clear that there will be three astronauts on board Shenzhou 9. If all goes well, two astronauts will occupy the Tiangong laboratory after they dock with it, while the third astronaut remains on board Shenzhou 9. But who will they be?

This author has long suggested that the crew would be entirely male, and drawn from China's original 1998 class of Shenzhou astronauts. It still seems probable to this author that at least two of the astronauts on Shenzhou 9 will be members of the class of '98, and at least one of them will be a previously unflown "rookie". But what of the third man, assuming that the third astronaut really is a man?

China has given a great deal of publicity to its two female astronaut trainees, who were a part of China's second batch of Shenzhou astronauts. Educated guesses from space analysts generally suggested that one of these women would fly on the second crew to Tiangong 1, which is expected to be the Shenzhou 10 mission.

There's been some more publicity and attention on these women in Chinese media. Reports in Chinese speak of them undergoing testing, and one recent English-language story suggested that they could even fly on Shenzhou 9. Curiouser and curiouser! Of course, we still don't really know, and this author still feels it's likely that there will be no female astronaut on this flight.

Could there have been a crew reshuffle? There have been so many strange stories connected with the upcoming Shenzhou 9 mission that we can't entirely rule it out. This leads to another question. Has there been political pressure to fly a female astronaut as quickly as possible?

This probably wasn't the original plan, but plans can change. The delay in the mission could give the female astronauts more time to train for the mission. A crew change could also explain why there has been evidence of confusion within the program.

It's useful to remember that China recently staged its annual parliamentary gathering, and an upcoming female astronaut launch would be valuable political currency.

Waiting for a female astronaut launch on Shenzhou 10 wouldn't be too different. A gap of a few months would be acceptable. But we don't know what sort of discussions or arguments have been happening behind closed doors.

We should know more in the next few months. Until then, the true mission of Shenzhou 9 will remain a mystery.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer. Email Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.


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