China Readies First Crew for Tianhe Space Station

China Readies First Crew for Tianhe Space Station

One day before launch, China finally confirmed unofficial reports that it will launch the first crew to its new space station module, Tianhe, on June 17 Beijing Time (June 16 Eastern Daylight Time). It is China’s first human spaceflight launch in 5 years. The three men will stay aboard Tianhe for three months, the longest time in orbit for any Chinese crew. Separately, Russia’s space agency head revealed that Russia plans to send its own cosmonauts to the Chinese Space Station in the future.

Tianhe is the core module of the new Chinese Space Station (CSS).  Two more modules are expected to be launched in the next year.  Like the U.S.-Russian-European-Japanese-Canadian International Space Station (ISS), it will be refueled in orbit by a cargo vehicle that will also deliver supplies. The first in the series to dock with the CSS arrived two weeks ago, Tianzhou-2.

Each CSS module has a mass of 20 Metric Tons (MT).  The 60 MT station will be a great advancement over China’s first two space stations, Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2, launched in 2011 and 2016 respectively. Each was 8.5 MT. Tiangong-1 hosted two three-person crews for 13 days and 15 days each. Tiangong-2 was visited by a single two-person crew for a month.

The latter was 5 years ago in 2016. No Chinese astronauts have flown into space since. In fact, since the first Chinese astronaut orbited Earth in 2003, only six Chinese human spaceflight missions have launched.

That is expected to change with the CSS.  Still modest compared to multi-modular ISS at 400 MT, once fully assembled it will serve as an orbiting research laboratory with capabilities similar to the Soviet Salyut-6 and Salyut-7 space stations of the late 1970s and 1980s.

At the Global Space Exploration (GLEX) conference taking place in St. Petersburg, Russia today, Dmitry Rogozin, Director General of Russia’s space state corporation Roscosmos, revealed that Russia plans to send crews to CSS.  At the same time, Russia is negotiating with the United States over how much longer it will participate in the ISS. The current agreement among all the ISS partners expires in 2024, but is expected to be extended to 2028 or 2030. NASA is eager to have Russia continue as a partner. Russia is about to launch a brand new 20 MT science module to ISS next month suggesting they plan to remain, but Russia wants the United States to drop sanctions imposed against Russian aerospace companies and also complains about the cost of maintaining the aging ISS.

China and Russia are stepping up their space cooperation. They recently signed an agreement to build an International Lunar Research Station. Rogozin said the flights to CSS will be part of that arrangement. Further details will be released at GLEX tomorrow at 7:00 am EDT (1400 Moscow Time).

The first CSS crew also will be launched tomorrow EDT.  Shenzhou-12 will lift off from China’s Jiuquan launch site in the Gobi desert at 9:22 pm EDT (9:22 am July 17, Beijng Time) on a Long March 2-F rocket. The crew will be commanded by Nie Haisheng, a veteran of two spaceflights, most recently in 2013.  He will be joined by Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo. This is Liu’s second flight. He last flew in 2008. Tang is a rookie.

This undated photo shows Chinese astronauts Nie Haisheng (C), Liu Boming (R) and Tang Hongbo who will carry out the Shenzhou-12 spaceflight mission. (Photo by Xu Bu/Xinhua)

China’s Xinhua news agency said they will take a “fast” trajectory to Tianhe, but did not specify the docking time.  The Tianzhou-2 cargo/refueling spacecraft docked there about 8 hours after launch.

Xinhua did not indicate whether the launch or docking will be televised.

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