China is days away from launching three astronauts
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: June 10, 2012
China rolled a Long March booster to a desert launch pad Saturday, setting up for the launch of three astronauts as soon as this week on a mission to dock with an orbiting laboratory module 200 miles above Earth.
The flight would mark China's fourth human spaceflight and the first crewed mission to the country's Tiangong 1 spacecraft, a bus-sized module launched in September 2011.
China's earlier piloted orbital flights accomplished the program's first spacewalk in 2008, and two astronauts spent nearly five days in space on a 2005 mission. Yang Liwei became the first Chinese citizen to reach space in 2003.
Tiangong 1 was the destination for the unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft in November, which successfully accomplished two automated link-ups with the module in orbit. The dockings were the first in China's space program, according to official media outlets.
The Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, mounted atop a 191-foot-tall Long March 2F rocket, rolled to a launch complex at the Jiuquan space base Saturday. Several days of final testing are planned before the mission is approved for launch, officials said.
The one-mile rollout from the Long March assembly building to the launch pad began at about 10:30 a.m. local time (0230 GMT) Saturday, according to a statement issued by the China Manned Space Engineering Office, or CMSEO, a military division which oversees Chinese human space missions.
The rollout "indicates that the manned space rendezvous and docking mission between [the] Tiangong 1 and Shenzhou 9 spacecraft has entered the last preparation phase," the China Manned Space Engineering Office said in a statement posted on its website.
Tiangong means heavenly palace in English, while Shenzhou is translated as divine craft.
The CMSEO said in a statement the Shenzhou 9 crew has completed manual rendezvous and docking simulation training and the astronauts are in "good condition" for the mission.
Mission controllers remotely commanded the Tiangong 1 module to lower its orbit in early June, placing the spacecraft in position for docking with Shenzhou 9.
Chinese officials last year said that while the unmanned Shenzhou 8 mission would test automated dockings in orbit, the Shenzhou 9 crew would demonstrate a delicate manual link-up with a pilot at the controls.
Shenzhou 8 took about two days to reach Tiangong 1 following launch. China has not said whether Shenzhou 9 will follow a similar rendezvous profile.
The mission's duration has also been kept secret. The capsule will make a parachuted landing in China's Inner Mongolia province at the end of the mission.
The state-run Xinhua news agency reported one astronaut would remain inside the Shenzhou 9 capsule as a precautionary measure in the event of an emergency. Two crew members will enter Tiangong 1 for a slew of unspecified engineering and scientific investigations.
Shenzhou 8 and Tiangong 1 will form a combined spacecraft stretching approximately 60 feet long.