Speaking Friday, China space officials said a recent trip to a prototype space station can be declared a success.
China’s first female astronaut and two other crew members emerged smiling from a capsule that returned safely to Earth on Friday from a 13-day mission to an orbiting module that is a prototype for a future space station. The Shenzhou 9 parachuted to a landing on the grasslands of the country’s sprawling Inner Mongolia region.
“Tiangong 1, our home in space, was comfortable and pleasant. We’re very proud of our nation,” Liu Yang, the nation’s first female astronaut, told national broadcaster CCTV.
The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has now sent eight astronauts into space, including two-time space traveler Jing Haipeng, who is currently stationed on Shenzhou-9 with Liu Yang and Liu Wang, the third member of the crew.
The launch was televised in China by state-run CCTV earlier this week. Speaking at the time, Chinese officials said the mission should be considered a success and that China would continue to take steps in the coming months and years towards furthering its presence in space.
“China is ready to have international cooperation including with the U.S. side in the space program, on the basis of equality and mutual respect,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in statement. “The achievement China has made in its space program is the result of the Chinese people’s hard work and innovation.”
The 9.4-ton Tiangong-1 module, launched and placed in orbit last September, is not a fully developed space station but rather a testing platform for rendezvous and docking missions similar to the one Shenzhou-9 is currently slated to accomplish. The prototype is seen as a key step for the Chinese space program, which is likely to adjust its focus in the coming months towards building a fully functional space station.
Chinese space officials say that the mission will provide further insight into how to best complete the coming steps required to begin building a space station.
“The Shenzhou-9 will perform our country’s first manned space docking mission with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space lab module,” said Zhou Jianping, chief designer of CNSA’s manned space program, a few days before Saturday’s launch. “It means China’s spacecraft will become a genuine manned shuttle tool between space and Earth. It can send human beings to space stations or space labs. This will be a significant step in China’s manned space flight history.”
During the trip, astronauts aboard the Chinese spacecraft Shenzhou 9 successfully completed the country’s first manual docking, according to The Associated Press. The AP reported that the Shenzhou 9 capsule safely docked with China’s Tiangong 1 module over the weekend, making it just one of three nations to have successfully docked with an orbiting station. China’s manned spaceflight program spokesman Wu Ping told reporters that the docking maneuver was carried out “calmly and skillfully”, and that it “represents a major breakthrough in our space rendezvous and docking technologies.”
The two men on the mission, both of whom are senior colonels in China’s air force, have received far less of the spotlight. The commander is Jing Haipeng, a veteran astronaut, while the third crew member Liu Wang.
The mission included a number of tests related to the operational capacity of the space station. Two of the astronauts lived and worked inside the module to test its life-support systems while the third will remain in the capsule to deal with any unexpected emergencies. The Shenzhou 9 crew also spent time carrying out scientific and technological experiments, as well as gaining experience with exercising and even resting in space.
China is hoping to join the United States and Russia as the only countries to send independently maintained space stations into orbit. It is already one of just three nations to have launched manned spacecraft on their own. The Soyuz capsules, originally designed in the 1960s for the Soviet space program and extensively improved since, are still used for supply deliveries today. Since the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle fleet, the Soyuz capsules are the only way to deliver supplies and personnel to the space station.
The space program is a source of enormous national pride for China, reflecting its rapid economic and technological progress and ambition to rank among the world’s leading nations. The selection of the first female astronaut is giving the program an additional publicity boost. China has only limited cooperation in space with other nations and its exclusion from the International Space Station.
China first launched a man into space in 2003 followed by a two-man mission in 2005 and a three-man trip in 2008 that featured the country’s first space walk. The mission, which is considered one of the most high profile mission for the fast-growing nation in recent years, comes just one week after the U.S. Air Force announced the landing of a top secret spy plane. U.S. officials have followed the growth of the Chinese space program, expressing concerns with recent exercises that involved destroying an obsolete satellite and the ability to launch spy satellites into orbit.
Meanwhile, the U.S. astronaut Joseph Acaba and Russians Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin are scheduled to remain on the ISS for the next three months. Later this month, Russia’s Yuri Malenchenko and Japan’s Aki Hoshide will join them. They will depart in a Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan. The Baikonur cosmodrome was the world’s first space launch facility and is the largest launch facility currently operational. Historical launches from the cosmodrome include the first operational intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the first man-made satellite, the first spacecraft to travel near the moon, and the first woman in space.