Russia, China Ready to Launch New Space Station Crews

Russia, China Ready to Launch New Space Station Crews

Russia has scheduled the Soyuz MS-02 launch for October 19.  Delayed from September 23 for technical reasons, it will take one American and two Russians to the International Space Station (ISS).  Meanwhile, China is getting ready to launch a two-man crew to its new Tiangong-2 space station sometime this month.

Soyuz MS-02 is the second flight of a new version of the Soyuz spacecraft, which made its first flight in 1967.  The spacecraft has been upgraded several times over the decades.  The MS version replaces TMA-M and has improved solar arrays, a new digital computer, and a new docking system, among other upgrades.  The first spacecraft, Soyuz MS-01, was launched in July and is currently docked to the ISS. That launch also was delayed — from June 24 to July 7 — for technical reasons reportedly related to the new docking system.

Russia’s official news agency TASS announced the new Soyuz MS-02 launch date today adding that the delay was due to a “squeezed cable” in the spacecraft.

It will take NASA’s Shane Kimbrough and Roscosmos’s Andrey Borisenko and Sergey Ryzhilov to ISS.  They will be welcomed by the three crew members currently aboard — NASA’s Kate Rubins, JAXA’s Takuya Ohishi and Roscosmos’s Anatoly Ivanishin — when they arrive two days later.   Russia is using the longer 2-day trajectory to get to ISS instead of the short 6-hour journey in order to check out the new spacecraft’s systems.

ISS has been permanently occupied since November 2000 by crews rotating on roughly 4-6 month tours of duty.  The approximately 400 metric ton (MT) multi-modular station is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe, and Canada.   The United States has not been able to launch crews to the ISS since it terminated the space shuttle program in 2011.   NASA hopes that two new U.S. “commercial crew” systems will be operational by 2018 so it is no longer reliant on Russia for crew transportation.

Russia has extensive experience with space stations, launching six successful Salyut space stations between 1971 and 1982 and the multi-modular Mir space station that operated from 1986-2001.  ISS is the second space station for the United States.  The first was Skylab in 1973-1974 (not to be confused with Spacelab, a science laboratory that flew in the cargo bay of the space shuttle).

China launched its first space station, Tiangong-1, in 2011.  It was visited by two three-person crews in 2012 and 2013.  Last month it launched Tiangong-2 and said that a two-man crew would be launched in mid-late October on the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft.  The launch date has not been officially announced, but Andrew Jones (@AJ-FI), a journalist in Finland who writes for and closely follows the Chinese space program, tweeted that he expects the launch on October 17 and docking on October 19.

The Tiangong space stations are quite small (8.6 MT) in comparison to the first Russian (Salyut 1, 18.6 MT) and U.S. (Skylab, 77 MT) space stations, not to mention ISS.  Nonetheless, it is a step on China’s path to a larger 60 MT space station planned for the early 2020s and sending people to the Moon in the 2030s.

China has a very modestly paced human spaceflight program.   It launched four uncrewed test flights of the Shenzhou spacecraft from 1999-2002.  China’s first “taikonaut,” Yang Liwei, flew in 2003 oh Shenzhou-5.  Shenzhou-6 in 2005 grew the crew size to two followed by Shenzhou-7 in 2008 with a three-man crew, included the first Chinese spacewalk.  Shenzhou-8 was an uncrewed test flight to the Tiangong-1 space station.  Shenzhou-9 and -10 were missions to that space station, each composed of two men and one woman.

The names of the Shenzhou-11 crew have not been announced, but their gender has — male.  Both planned flights to Tiangong-2 will take two-man crews for 30 days each.

A list of all Chinese human spaceflight-related launches is available in a fact sheet.

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