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Tiangong Space Station Plans Progessing
by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Dec 7, 2010

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In 2012, China will launch her first manned space mission since 2008. The gap between missions has been long, and it will be interesting to see the program continue. Despite the anticipation, we still know little about who will fly on the mission of Shenzhou 9, which is expected to dock with China's first space laboratory, Tiangong 1.

China has a pool of fully trained but unflown astronauts from its first group of flight candidates, which produced China's first manned space mission in 2003. Recently, China announced the selection of a second batch of astronauts, which includes five men and two women. Their identities remain officially concealed, despite the speculation of space analysts on some of their identities.

Who will actually fly on Shenzhou 9? At the moment, it's possible that the Chinese themselves haven't confirmed the crew. We don't even know for sure how many astronauts will be on board the spacecraft. This leaves ample room for speculation.

China has made vague statements about crews of two or three astronauts for the missions of Shenzhou 9 and 10, both of which are expected to dock with Tiangong. This suggests that there could be some experimentation in crew numbers, while the performance of both crew sizes is explored.

If China takes the cautious path, Shenzhou 9 will probably fly with a crew of only two. This could make it easier to manage events in an emergency. It also reduces the strain on logistics such as food and oxygen. Managing consumables aboard the Shenzhou spacecraft and the rather small space laboratory will be a critical issue on both missions.

China plans to test docking operations with Tiangong using the unmanned Shenzhou 8 mission, which should fly in late 2011. Nevertheless, the first manned docking and habitation of a space laboratory will be a big step to take, and will be challenging. For this reason, there is a strong possibility that the commander of Shenzhou 9 will be an experienced astronaut, flown on a previous mission. China has launched six astronauts on three flights.

Yang Liwei, who became China's first astronaut, can probably be ruled out for any future missions. He's too historically important to risk, and has certainly gained enough kudos from his flight.

This leaves five potential commanders. Zhai Zhigang, who made China's first spacewalk, could also be off the list, due to his own place in history. The list shrinks to four. But again, it must be stressed that all of this is an educated guess.

Another astronaut from China's original batch will probably join him. All of the first group of astronauts are approaching their "use by" date as suitable flight candidates, due to China's highly strict criteria for astronaut selection. It makes sense to fly more of these men while they are still eligible.

China has indicated that some members of the original astronaut group will probably retire without a mission. This statement reinforces the idea that at least one of the next two manned Shenzhou missions will contain non-rookies from the first group, and/or members of the second group. Getting more members of the first batch into space is another factor that could push the crew size of Shenzhou 9 to three.

Alternatively, the third seat could go to a more recent recruit. China has indicated that members of the second group of astronauts could fly to the Tiangong laboratory. By 2012, it seems reasonable to assume that they will be fully trained for flight. There's a lot of interest in the possibility of flying a female astronaut on Shenzhou 9.

If there is a third astronaut on Shenzhou 9, it could certainly be a member of the second batch, but this author speculates that the astronaut will probably be a man. China will be keen to fly a woman fairly soon, and it's surprising that women were not integrated into the astronaut program at an earlier stage.

But there will be far more impact if this happens on Shenzhou 10. Shenzhou 9 will grab attention and headlines for being the first manned Chinese space docking and space laboratory crew. Shenzhou 10 will repeat these achievements, but with less novelty. Placing a woman on this second crew to Tiangong 1 would allow the mission to achieve more distinction.

So, who will fly on Shenzhou 10? Based on the aforementioned reasoning, one of the two women selected in the second batch of astronauts seems most likely.

If the previous crew was capped at two, then this flight will probably carry three astronauts. There could be another astronaut from the first batch, probably unflown previously.

The third seat could be taken by an astronaut from the first or second batch. Alternatively, this could be a mission with just two astronauts.

China has typically divided its astronauts into separate crew groups, and trained them in parallel for the same mission. There will probably be two independent groups training for Shenzhou 10, with one of the female astronauts in each group. One of the groups will eventually be selected as the prime crew, with the other serving as backup.

All of this is guesswork, but there's not much solid evidence on the record. China has not been very revealing with details of its new astronauts or its crew plans. As usual, it's fun to speculate.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer. Email Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones accepts inquiries from media outlets on this subject.


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