China’s Shenzhou (Sacred Vessel) 10 spacecraft launched successfully from its base in the Gobi Desert on Tuesday, carrying three astronauts on a 15 day mission to the orbiting Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1 space station. The mission is the sixth by China’s manned space program, which began with Yang Liwei’s orbital flight ten years ago this October. From Xinhua’s ChinaView TV:
Reuters’ Ben Blanchard reported on the launch:
Once in orbit, the craft will dock with the Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1, a trial space laboratory module, and the two male and one female astronauts will carry out various experiments and test the module’s systems.
They will also give a lecture to students back on Earth.
[…] President Xi Jinping oversaw Tuesday’s launch personally, addressing the astronauts before they blasted off to wish them success, saying he was “enormously happy” to be there.
“You are the pride of the Chinese people, and this mission is both glorious and sacred,” Xi said, according to state media.
[…] China’s space program has come a long way since late leader Mao Zedong, founder of Communist China in 1949, lamented that the country could not even launch a potato into space. [Source]
While China is now retracing steps taken by the Americans and Soviets several decades ago, the consistency and long-term planning of its space program have been compared favorably with the fits, starts and dead-ends that have left the U.S. dependent on Russia for rides into orbit. From Katie Hunt and Zhang Dayu at CNN:
“These longer duration missions and space dockings are essential practice for any kind of long-term, more permanent presence in space or a mission to, say, the moon,” said Dean Cheng, a research fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
[…] “In some ways, they have overtaken the US, at least temporarily,” says the Heritage Foundation’s Cheng. “Of course, the US, and even more Russia, have more experience in manned space. China is not, at this time, capable of reaching the Moon.”
“But like the tortoise and the hare, China is slowly catching up with the US.”
However, Cheng says that China is not engaged in a space race with the US. Rather: “They have a long-term plan, and they are sticking to it.” [Source]
The future station will weigh about 60 tons, slightly smaller than NASA’s Skylab of the 1970s and about one-sixth the size of the 16-nation international space station. China was barred from participating in the international space station, largely on objections from the United States over political differences and the Chinese program’s close links with the military.
In the meantime, China is turning its attention to sending a rover to the moon. That could be followed by a crewed lunar mission if officials decide to combine the human spaceflight and lunar exploration programs, as [U.S. Naval War College’s Joan] Johnson-Freese says they are now considering doing.
China will focus for now on development of the Long March 5 heavier-lift rocket needed to launch the Tiangong 2, said Charles Vick, an expert on the Chinese and Russian space programs at GlobalSecurity.org.
“The focus is now shifting from the near-term to those future systems,” Vick said, adding that the military continues to dictate priorities. “China’s space program has been a very deliberately focused effort that focuses on specific science and technology goals.”
In the short term, the plan includes the construction of a new, larger launch center, reports South China Morning Post’s Stephen Chen:
The Jiuquan launch centre erupted in cheers after yesterday’s successful launch, with celebratory fire crackers set off and banquets held.
But the future of China’s largest space launch centre is under a cloud, because it will soon be eclipsed by an even bigger one in Wenchang , Hainan , which is nearing completion.
Lu Jinron, the chief engineer at Jiuquan, said Wenchang would definitely have an impact on Jiuquan. Launches for the construction of a space laboratory would still be carried out by Jiuquan, but Wenchang would take over the heavy lifting job for China’s ambitious space station project, scheduled for completion by 2020, he said.
“Jiuquan will still be responsible for all manned launches,” he said. “We have more experience. We also have sunnier weather [….]” [Source]