Next Chinese Space Station Mission Not Until June 2013

Next Chinese Space Station Mission Not Until June 2013

A Chinese space official told China’s official news agency, Xinhua, today that the next crewed mission to the Tiangong-1 space station module will be in June 2013.   That is one year after the first successful crewed flight to Tiangong-1, continuing China’s measured pace in its human spaceflight program.

Despite some attempts in the West to portray the Chinese human spaceflight program as an aggressively-paced effort to get to the Moon before American astronauts return there, the decision to wait 12 months between Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 is in keeping with the slow-but-steady pace China has displayed in the past.   The first Chinese “taikonaut” was launched in 2003 on Shenzhou-5 after four robotic precursor missions.   The second crewed spaceflight was two years later, Shenzhou-6 in 2005 (with two taikonauts), then three years elasped before the third, Shenzhou-7 in 2008 (with three taikonauts), and four more years to the Shenzhou-9 flight this summer that took three Chinese crew members — including China’s first female taikonaut — to Tiangong-1.  

Tiangong-1 was launched in September 2011 and Chinese officials said three spacecraft would be sent to dock with it, though how many would be crewed was not clear.   Tiangong-1 itself is a small module that is usually referred to as China’s first space station.  It is quite small by space station standards, however, just 8.6 metric tons (MT).  The world’s first space station, the Soviet Union’s Salyut 1, had a mass about twice that — 18.6 MT.  The first U.S. space station, Skylab, was 77 MT.   Today’s International Space Station is about 400 MT.   Chinese officials have been quoted in the Chinese press saying there are plans to build a 60 MT space station by the end of this decade, though the Chinese government’s official 5-year plan for space activities is not that specific.

Shenzhou-8 was launched without a crew as a test of docking procedures in November 2011, and Shenzhou-9 in June 2012.   Shenzhou-9’s crew spent 13 days in orbit.   China’s official Xinhua press service reports today that Shenzhou-10 will be launched in June 2013 with a three person crew and remain in orbit for 15 days.  This crew also might be composed of two men and one woman according to the report.  The goals for the mission seem quite similar to those accomplished on Shenzhou-9, including systems tests and scientific experiments.

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