Wang Becomes China’s First Female Spacewalker

Wang Becomes China’s First Female Spacewalker

Wang Yaping has become the first Chinese woman to make a spacewalk. She along with two male colleagues are in the first month of a six month stint aboard the Tianhe space station module where they will set a new duration record for Chinese astronauts. While still far behind the 15-nation International Space Station (ISS) that just celebrated 21 years of permanent occupancy, China’s space station program is ramping up. Experts are urging the U.S. government to quicken its pace in deciding what comes after ISS.

Wang Yaping, first Chinese woman to make a spacewalk. Photo credit: Xinhua

This is Wang’s second time in space. In 2013 she spent 15 days in orbit visiting an earlier Chinese space station, Tiangong-1, as part of a three-person crew. Joining her on this mission, Shenzhou-13, are Zhai Zhigang and Ye Guangfu.

Ye is a rookie, but this also is Zhai’s second spaceflight. He was the first Chinese taikonaut to make a spacewalk. That was on Shenzhou-7 in 2008 and lasted just 22 minutes. This time he and Wang were scheduled to be outside Tianhe for about six hours.

Wang joins the ranks of the first Soviet and first American women to make spacewalks: Svetlana Savitskaya and Kathryn Sullivan, both in 1984.

China’s human spaceflight program has been proceeding at a measured pace. The first Chinese taikonaut launched in 2003.  Since then, only seven other Shenzhou missions have carried crews.

They are picking up the pace now, however, with a new space station under construction. Tianhe was launched in April and is the first of three modules that eventually will compromise the China Space Station (CSS), also referred to as Tiangong-3.

The first two Tiangongs were quite small, 8.5 Metric Tons (MTs) each. By contrast, Tianhe and the other two modules, expected to launch in 2022, are 22.5 MT each.

Tiangong-1 hosted two crews for 13 days and 15 days in 2012 and 2013 respectively (Wang was on the second). Tiangong-2 only had one visit, for 30 days in 2016.

The first Tianhe crew, Shenzhou-12, stayed for 90 days and conducted two multi-hour spacewalks.

Wang’s spacewalk is another signal that China’s confidence in its human spaceflight program is growing. It still shares only a small amount information about what they are doing, but did release some video and photos of this spacewalk.

China’s near-term human spaceflight plans seem centered on Earth orbit. Earlier this year China and Russia announced plans to jointly build an International Lunar Research Station on the Moon, but it will rely on robotic spacecraft initially.  They do not anticipate sending crews there until the mid-2030s despite speculation in the West that China is in a Moon race with the United States. NASA has been working toward returning astronauts to the Moon as soon as 2024. That date is expected to slip a bit — the agency will provide an update tomorrow afternoon — but is much closer than what China and Russia are talking about.

If there is a competition, it is for a presence in low Earth orbit with space stations like ISS and CSS.

Even when fully built, CSS at approximately 70 MT still will be much smaller than the ISS, which is about 420 MT with the addition of Russia’s newest module, Nauka. ISS just celebrated 21 years of permanent occupancy on November 2. International crews rotating on roughly 4-6 month tours of duty have been aboard continuously during that entire time.

But ISS is getting old and the partners are considering how long ISS can last and what should replace it. Unquestionably the United States does not want China to be the only country offering access to research facilities in low Earth orbit. NASA wants the U.S. private sector to build commercial space stations that it can use along with other customers. Several companies have plans, but former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and others recently told a Senate committee that faster action is needed for the United States to retain its leadership in low Earth orbit.

Todd Harrison, Director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), puts it more broadly. He told a House committee in September that unlike the 1960s, this “is not a race to see who can build the biggest space station, plant another flag on the Moon, or be the first to land humans on Mars. The real objective of this race is to see who can build the broadest and strongest international coalition in space” because they will set “the de facto norms for the space commerce and exploration that follows.”

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.