China To Launch Manned Spacecraft In June

By Amir Khan on June 11, 2012 8:59 AM EDT

Tiangong
A mockup of the Shenzou capsule docked with the Tiangong 1 (Photo: Creative Commons)

China will launch its first manned space mission to a space laboratory later this month in mid-June, the country's human spaceflight agency announced on Saturday. The mission will launch three astronauts onboard a Shenzhou 9 capsule to the Tiangong-1, a mini-space station that has been unmanned since China launched it last year.

"The Shenzhou 9 will perform our country's first manned space docking mission with the orbiting Tiangong 1 space lab module," Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China's manned space program, said, according to MSNBC.

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The mission is China's fourth overall manned spaceflight, according to BBC News, and its first since 2008. It became the country to independently send a man into space in 2003.

"It means China's spacecraft will become a genuine manned shuttle tool between space and Earth. It can send human beings to space stations or space labs," Jianping told the Xinhua news agency. "This will be a significant step in China's manned space flight history."

China launched the Tiangong-1 space station in September and followed that with an unmanned Shenzhou 8 capsule, which docked with the station, in November. The mission will not only be the first manned craft to dock with the space station, but could potentially be the first launch of a female Chinese Astronaut, Jianping said.

"China is currently following a three-step space exploration program that ultimately aims to land an astronaut on the moon," MSNBC reported. "According to a white paper released by the Chinese government in December, the country plans to launch a series of robotic moon landers and a lunar sample-return mission by 2016."

Scientists will conduct functional tests on the spacecraft and the rocket, as well as joint tests on selected astronauts, spacecraft, rocket and ground systems in the next few days, a spokesperson told Xinhua.

China was previously turned away from the International Space Station after objections from the United States, according to BBC News. Instead, they will dock with the smaller space station while they work towards 60-tonne manned space station by 2020.

Joan Johnson-Freese, professor of national security studies at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I, told Space.com that China's space program is ambitious, but doable.

"The Chinese do an excellent job in learning from others and I think they do not want to see themselves in NASA's position of having lots of good ideas, but more rhetorical political support than actual funding to follow through on those ideas," she said. 

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