In the next step toward its own space station, China will launch spacecraft Shenzhou 10 on Tuesday, June 11, at 5:38 p.m. Beijing time (5:38 a.m. EDT). The three-astronaut crew consists of Nie Haisheng, a Chinese military pilot and China National Space Administration (CNSA) astronaut, Zhang Xiaoguang, a Chinese pilot and ex-air force squadron commander, and Wang Yaping, a former air force pilot and the second Chinese woman to travel to space.
Shenzhou 10 will rendezvous and dock with the Tiangong 1, translated “Heavenly Palace 1,” space module, which has been in orbit since September 2011. During the 15-day mission, Shenzhou 10 will dock twice with Tiangong 1: once manually, and once automatically. Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China’s human space program, explained, “Up to now, we have only conducted three automated rendezvous and dockings and one piloted rendezvous and docking. We need more flight tests for verification.” While Tiangong 1 was originally designed to last two years, part of the mission will be to evaluate whether it is suitable for an extension.
China is far behind other countries in the development of its space program– Tiangong 1 is a mere 8.5 metric tons, compared to the 77 metric ton Skylab, the first U.S. space station launched back in 1973; however, the country is making steady, calculated advances toward a more robust program. China has taken a “stepping stone approach” to its human space program, beginning with the launch of its first astronaut in 2003, followed by a two-astronaut mission in 2005, and a three-astronaut mission in 2008, which included the country’s first spacewalk. Tiangong 1’s launch in 2011 marked China’s first attempt to dock two spacecraft together. According to officials, the mission commencing on Tuesday will be the last of three rendezvous and docking missions, and “The experiences gained will enable China to build and operate a large space station around 2020.”
On the other hand, the country’s rapid progress may be hindered by its lack of international connections. China is not a member of the 15-nation partnership that developed the largest space station ever constructed: the $100 billion, 400 metric ton International Space Station. Additionally, due to concerns over knowledge transfer, Congress has banned NASA from any partnerships or collaboration with China.. Gregory Kulacki, a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, voiced his disapproval of Congress’ decision, stating, “Banning contact between NASA and potential counterparts in China only gives greater authority to the more nationalistic elements within the Chinese space community….”
Despite China’s lack of international connections, the Shenzhou 10 mission showcases its ambition and competence in space exploration, while, in contrast, U.S. manned space launches have been limited by budget restraints and shifting priorities.