The goal seems to be not catching up with or surpassing other countries, but avoiding falling too far behind

China has taken another major step forward in its human spaceflight programme when Shenzhou-9, a capsule carrying three crew, one of them the country’s first space woman, docked with an orbiting laboratory, Tiangong-1, recently.

The Asian giant becomes the third nation that can send humans to rendezvous, dock with and then move into another orbiting spacecraft. This capability is essential for achieving its goal of establishing a full-fledged space station, which will be permanently manned, by early next decade.

China’s first woman astronaut, Liu Yang, a 33-year-old Air Force pilot, made her voyage on the 49th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s Valentina Tereshkova becoming the first woman to go to space. In that intervening period, there have been over 50 women in space, including Indian-born Kalpana Chawla who lost her life when space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry in 2003.

‘Plan 863’

China launched its first satellite, the 173-kg Dong Fang Hong 1, in April 1970. A few months later, the country’s top leadership gave the go-ahead for a project to send humans into space. But that effort soon fizzled out, given the daunting technological complexity involved and the cost of mastering it.

However, the idea was resurrected in 1986 when the Chinese government embarked on “Plan 863” so that the country could rapidly close the gap with advanced nations in chosen areas of science and technology. Aerospace was one such field that was selected.

The following year, experts on a committee, which was set up to develop a detailed plan for the space sector, decided that a manned effort should have the construction of a space station as its long-term goal. “The goal of constructing a space station, as opposed to going to the moon or some other long-term objective, was set very early in Chinese deliberations,” according to Gregory Kulacki, a China expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a U.S.-based non-profit science advocacy group.

Manned spaceflight

Drawing on Chinese-language histories of the space programme, he, along with Jeffrey G. Lewis of the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, had published a paper in 2009 titled “A Place for One’s Mat: China’s Space Program 1956-2003.” He has recently written another article, “Why China is Building a Space Station.”

Having a space station as the ultimate objective was never a point of contention among those who wanted the country to send humans into space, observed Dr. Kulacki in the latter piece. The country’s leaders felt compelled to build a space station because their space experts believed that the U.S., the Soviet Union, Europe and Japan were investing heavily in technologies for that purpose. They also thought that South Korea and India, might join as partners or develop space stations of their own.

“From the beginning, and throughout the development of the Chinese human spaceflight programme, the goal was never to catch up or surpass other nations but to avoid falling too far behind,” he remarked.

But there were vigorous internal debates on whether to have a manned space programme at all. Issues of whether the country had the necessary financial, human and technological resources for such an ambitious effort came up. A minister for aeronautics and astronautics voiced concern that a manned programme would hinder the development of ballistic missiles and application satellites that were needed.

The debate finally ended only in September 1992 when the Standing Committee of the Politburo approved the human spaceflight programme with the space station as its ultimate objective.

Interestingly, according to Dr. Kulacki, there were also arguments about the space transportation system that should take astronauts to space and back. A group at the Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) wanted to see a reusable space shuttle being developed. They took the view that sending humans in a space capsule would only “disgrace the nation.” However, the development of a powerful variant of the Long March rocket so that foreign satellites could be launched on commercial terms settled the matter in favour of a capsule.

From 2003

China demonstrated its capability for manned spaceflight when Shenzhou-5 took Yang Liwei aloft in 2003. Two years later, two astronauts circled the earth for nearly five days in Shenzhou-6. Then, in 2008, three men went on a three-day mission aboard Shenzhou-7, with one of them coming out of the capsule to carry out a space walk.

The experimental space laboratory, Tiangong-1, was put into orbit in September last year. In preparation for the present mission, an uncrewed Shenzhou-8 spacecraft was sent in November to dock automatically with the orbiting lab. The Shenzhou-9, with its three astronauts, docked with the Tiangong-1 on June 18. Soon afterwards, video images of the astronauts entering and floating about in the lab were beamed back to earth.

The 8.5-tonne space lab was quite modest, observed analyst Marcia S. Smith, founder and editor of the website, It was only about half the mass of the world’s first space station, the Soviet Union’s Salyut-1. Skylab, America’s first space station that was launched in the 1970s, had weighed about 77 tonnes. “Nevertheless, occupying a space station will be a significant achievement for China,” she pointed out, writing before the astronauts left Earth.

The Shenzhou-9 is expected to remain in space for 13 days, according to a report from the Xinhua news agency. During this time, it will undock and attempt a second docking under manual control (the first had been done using automatic systems).

The Tiangong-1 has a life of two years. Another set of crew will be sent to the lab on the Shenzhou-10 either later this year or in 2013. The Tiangong-1 will be followed by a larger Tiangong-2 and, subsequently, by Tiangong-3. While Tiangong-1 is intended to support a crew for only about two weeks at a time, later space labs will allow longer duration stay onboard.

Assembly of a permanently manned space station, made up of multiple modules and weighing about 60 tonnes, will be taken up only after these missions are successfully completed.

It will be another decade before China completes its space station, with difficult and dangerous work remaining to be done, observed Dr. Kulacki. “The leadership of China’s space programme does not appear to be in a hurry and is not rushing to beat the United States to the moon or anywhere else.”

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