The Chinese government has announced they will launch three taikonauts sometime in mid-June 2012, on the first manned mission to dock with their orbiting experimental module, and confirmed again that the crew might include China’s first female space traveler. A rocket carrying the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft was moved to a launch pad in China’s desert northwest over the weekend, China’s Xinhua News Agency reported.
The three-member crew will dock with and live inside the Tiangong 1 (or Heavenly Palace-1) orbital module launched last year. No word on how long the mission will be. We reported in March that the crew possibly could include a woman, and Niu Hongguang, deputy commander-in-chief of the country’s manned space program, said the final selection would depend on conditions nearer the time of launch.
This type of late announcement of the crew is not unprecedented – in the past, China’s space program has named the crew for the next mission just a few days before launch.
From previous reports, China picked two women and five men from thousands of candidates to become the second batch of seven astronaut trainees in 2010. Both of the women were former fighter jet pilots.
“The manned space program would not be complete without women’s participation,” Jiao Weixin, an earth and space scientist with Peking University, was quoted as saying.
China launched their first human mission in 2003. They have launched two other human missions, one of which included a space walk in 2008.
Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s human space program, said that the mission will be “a significant step in China’s space history”, because it’s the first time for a Chinese spacecraft to send astronauts into a space lab, instead of just carrying them to circle the Earth as in the previous three manned missions, the Chinese Daily reported.
During the flight, one crew member will remain aboard the Shenzhou 9 “as a precautionary measure in case of emergency” while the others enter Tiangong 1, Xinhua said.
We’ll keep you updated on any announcements of the crew or when the launch will take place.
The Chinese government last year announced a 5-year plan for space exploration that includes collecting samples from the Moon by 2016.