China Launches Spacecraft with Three Astronauts on Board

Chinese space launch

NASA may have retired its space program, but the Chinese are ‘throttle up’ with their own.  China launched a spacecraft from a site in the Gobi Desert with three astronauts aboard on Tuesday.

The Shenzhou-10, China’s fifth manned spacecraft, took off from the Jiuquan launch center in the northwestern province of Gansu.  It will dock with the Tiangong-1 space station, which has been in orbit since September 2011.

The three astronauts, two men and one woman, will be in orbit for 15 days.  They will dock with the space station twice, perfecting docking maneuvers, and evaluating the functionality of controls.

“The functionality, performance, and coordination of all systems will be evaluated during this mission,” Wu Ping, a spokesperson for China’s Manned Space Program, told a news conference on Monday ahead of the launch.

The information acquired will assist in the construction of a space station designed for long term occupation, which is in final stages of assembly.

China’s first mission into space was in 2003.  In 2012, they launched 18 spacecraft.  This is their fifth mission containing crew members.

A mission last year carried China’s first female astronaut, and performed the initial docking maneuver.  Today’s mission also includes a woman, Wang Yaping, and two male astronauts, Nie Haisheng and Zhang Xiaoguang.

“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.

There are concerns in the West about China’s growing military capability, and its space exploration.  The Pentagon released a report with a caution to the United States about China’s advancements.

“China is developing a multi-dimensional program to improve its capabilities to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by adversaries during times of crisis or conflict,” the report said.

With the end of the space shuttle program in 2011, Russia and China are the only two nations actively producing vehicles capable of performing missions in space.

“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, make no mistake about it, China is advancing their program rapidly.

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.”

Companies such as Boeing, Space X and Virgin Galactic are scrambling to develop private sector spacecraft.  They are the first to enter the ‘space race’ as privately owned companies.  Previously only individual nations have been involved in space exploration.

Today’s launch, with three astronauts on board for a more than two-week’s duration, shows evidence that they have made advances more quickly than expected.

James Turnage

The Guardian Express