China is set to write another chapter in its space program's history on Saturday, June 16, with the launch of the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft into orbit. The mission, if completed successfully, will be the first space docking by a manned craft for the Chinese space agency. The mission also will enjoy a first simply by sending China's first female astronaut into space.
Xinhua, China's state media, reported earlier this week that the spacecraft and its rocket carrier, the Long March-2F, were moved into launch position in Gansu province on Saturday.
The three astronauts flying the mission met the media Friday. Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut, was introduced during a televised press conference alongside her crewmates, Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang, according to the state media.
Zhou Jianping, designer-in-chief of China's manned space program, told Xinhua that one of the astronauts would not board the space station, leaving at least one individual aboard the Shenzhou-9 in case of emergencies.
The unmanned spacecraft Shenzhou-8 successfully docked with the Tiangong-1 experimental space module back in November, setting up Saturday's manned mission. It was the first such docking in China's history.
The Shenzhou-9 mission will be China's fourth manned mission to space and its first since 2008, according to BBC News. China first sent an astronaut into space in 2003, becoming only the third nation in history to independently accomplish the feat.
Once its manned docking sequence is complete, the Chinese space program will become the third nation to successfully perform the maneuver behind the U. S. and Russia. The Shenzhou-8 remote docking also placed the program in elite company alongside the U. S., Russia, Japan, and Europe.
The space race appears to be heating up. Just three weeks ago, the first ever remote docking by a private company, SpaceX, took place. The successful mission was the first of several planned ferrying projects designed to employ the company's Dragon space capsule. Partnering with NASA, SpaceX plans to not only ship supplies up to the International Space Station and bring back payloads, but to also begin transporting astronauts as well.
Xinhua announced in February that the historic Shenzhou-9 mission might include women. Although there have been several women who have been to space over the years, including Sally Ride (America's first woman in space), the first to do so was Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who, appropriately enough, did so on June 16, 1963.
China's ambitions for space include putting a man on the moon within the next few years. Spurred by the discovery of water resources and rich mineral deposits, such as titanium, on or just below the moon's surface in the past few years, the Asian nation's plans for a moonbase by the mid-2020s was moved up to 2020.
China placed their own orbiting module in Earth orbit in September 2011 after being barred from participating with the other nations manning and operating the International Space Station. The United States reportedly had objections to China's inclusion.
The Tiangong-1 (Tiangong means "heavenly body") is a "target vehicle" that is part of a three-piece assembly that will be completed by 2020. When complete it will contain a space laboratory (Tiangong-2) and a space station component (Tiangong-3) as well. The entire spacecraft will weigh 60 tons.
(photo credit: Nesnad, Wikimedia Commons)