Giant leap for China with manual docking by spacecraft


WITH THE manual docking of the spacecraft Shenzhou 9 and Tiangong 1, China made a giant step towards its long-held ambition of transporting people and cargo into space, and building a space station by the end of the decade.

After the space race of the cold war era, space travel excites few in the West these days, but in China the space programme is seen as a great advertisement for the country’s growing technological progress.

Ultimately the goal is to put a man on the moon. Even though China is only where the US was in the 1960s, it is gaining ground fast.

The Shenzhou 9 separated about 400m from the Tiangong (which translates as Heavenly Palace) module for about two minutes before reconnecting under the manual control of the crew. The event was avidly watched by millions live on state television.

This has been a mission characterised by firsts. Liu Yang boldly went where no Chinese woman has gone before aboard the Shenzhou 9, alongside her two male colleagues, mission commander and veteran astronaut Jing Haipeng (45) and Liu Wang (43).

“The manual docking was beautifully conducted. It was very accurate and swift,” Liu Weibo, who is responsible for China’s astronaut system, told the Xinhua news agency.

All three astronauts, or “taikonauts” in China, are pilots and officers in the Chinese air force, and the whole mission has been promoted by the government as a major source of national pride. Their mission, which is expected to last at least 10 days, is China’s fourth manned mission.

Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China’s manned space programme, said the space docking was “a complete success” and the three taikonauts had re-entered the space lab module to continue their scientific experiments.

“The operation of the conjoint Shenzhou 9 spacecraft and Tiangong 1 space lab is normal and all astronauts are in good conditions,” she said.

Rendezvous and docking exercises between the two orbiters mark an important step in China’s efforts to acquire the technological and logistical skills to run a full space lab that can house astronauts for long periods.

China has gone it alone in space because it has been refused permission to join the 16-country International Space Programme, mostly because the US worries about military secrets passing to China. 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.

Not content with merely being the human beings furthest away from the Earth, China was also celebrating a group of “oceanauts”, who were over 7km below the Pacific Ocean, where they broke the country’s dive record in a manned submersible, the Jiaolong, on Sunday morning.

The oceanauts sent a message of congratulations to their comrades above the Earth, who replied with a video message saying: “May our motherland prosper!”