China Blasts First Space Lab Tiangong 1 to Orbit

A Long March-2FT1 carrier rocket loaded with Tiangong-1 unmanned space lab module blasts off from the launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Gansu Province, Sept. 29, 2011. (Xinhua/Wang Jianmin)

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China launched their first space station module into orbit today (Sept. 29), marking a major milestone in the rapidly expanding Chinese space program. The historic liftoff of the man rated Tiangong 1 (Heavenly Palace 1) space lab on a Long March 2F rocket took place at 9:16 p.m. local time (9:16 a.m. EDT) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center located in Gansu province in northwest China and is an impressive advance for China.

The beautiful nighttime liftoff occurred exactly on time and was carried live on China’s state run television – CCTV – and on the internet for all to see. Chinese President Hu Jintao and many of China’s other top government leaders witnessed the launch from the Beijing Aerospace Control Center as a gesture of confidence and support. Their presence was a clear sign of just how important China’s top leadership considers investments in research as a major driver of technological innovation that is bolstering China’s vigorously growing economy and employing tens of thousands of people.

The US – in sharp contrast – is cutting space spending and handing out pink slips to many thousands of shuttle workers, CCTV noted.

As a CCTV commentator said after the successful Tiangong 1 launch, “30 Years ago it was ‘science fiction’ to imagine a Chinese astronaut in space. Today it’s a reality!”

Long range cameras tracked rocket for several minutes and clearly showed the jettisoning of the first stage boosters and the payload fairing.

“The launch of Tiangong 1 has been successfully completed,” announced Gen. Chang Wanquan, chief commander of China’s manned space engineering project on CCTV

Liftoff of March 2F rocket with Tiangong 1 space lab on Sept. 29, 2011. Credit: CCTV

Tiangiong 1 will serve a crucial role as a docking target to carry out China’s first rendezvous and docking in space- initially with an unmanned vehicle and thereafter with astronauts crews. The US and the Soviet Union mastered these technologies back in the 1960’s, and China is rapidly catching up now.

Rendezvous and docking are key accomplishments that China must achieve in order to move forward and accomplish even more ambitious space goals – construction of a 60 ton space station by the year 2020.

The two stage Long March 2F rocket was upgraded with more than 170 improvements including a larger payload fairing to house bigger Tiangong 1 module, four longer liquid fueled strap on boosters with more powerful thrust capability and more precise guidance systems.

The 8.5 ton Tiangong 1 was designed to stay in space for at least 2 years and support crews of up to three astronauts for short duration stays. It will be the target of at least three upcoming space missions – Shenzhou 8, 9 and 10.

China’s Long March 2F rocket blasts Tiangong 1 to orbit on Sept. 29, 2011. Credit: CCTV

Shenzhou is China’s human spaceflight capsule, derived from the Russian Soyuz and also significantly upgraded with China’s own nationally developed technology.

The unmanned Shenzhou 8 will launch in about 1 month according to officials from the China Manned Space Engineering Office and reach the vicinity of Tiangong 1 after 2 days. Shenzhou 8 will conduct at least two practice test dockings to extensively check out all systems and experience.

Shenzhou 9 and 10 will dock during 2012 and are likely to include the first female Chinese astronaut.

Tiangong 1 is a prototype miniture space station module, not fully outfitted for long duration stays of astronauts. The space lab consists of two segments – a forward habitable, pressurized section for the astronauts (measuring some 530 cubic feet in volume) and an unpressurized resource compartment in the rear with two solar arrays consisting of four segments to provide ample power.

Historic liftoff of China’s first man rated Tiangong 1 space module atop a Long March 2F rocket on Sept. 29, 2011 at 9:16 p.m. local time from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, Gansu province, China. Credit: CCTV

Read Ken’s related feature about Tiangong 1
China set to ‘Leap Forward in Space’ as Tiangong 1 Rolls to Launch Pad

China set to ‘Leap Forward in Space’ as Tiangong 1 Rolls to Launch Pad

The integrated Tiangong? spacecraft and CZ-2F launch vehicle combination has arrived at launch tower

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China’s human spaceflight program is gearing up to take a highly significant “Leap forward in Space” after their “Tiangong 1” prototype space station was rolled out to the remote Gobi desert launch pad at the countries Jiuquan Satellite Launching Center in Gansu Province in anticipation of blastoff sometime this week.

Space officials from the Chinese Manned Space Engineering Office have now confirmed that liftoff of the 8.5 ton Tiangong 1 human rated module atop a Long March CZ-IIF booster rocket is slated to take place during a launch window that extends from Sept. 27 to Sept. 30. The launch was delayed a few days after the recent launch failure of a similar Chinese rocket, the Long March IIC.

China’s burgeoning space efforts come directly on the heels of the voluntary US shutdown of the Space Shuttle program, thereby dismantling all US capability to launch humans into space from American soil for several years until about 2014 at a minimum.

The US manned spaceflight capability gap will be stretched out even further if NASA’s budget for commercial space taxis and the newly proposed SLS launch system is cut by political leaders in Washington, DC.

The integrated Tiangong 1 spacecraft and CZ-2F launch vehicle combination is slowly rolling out of the VAB facility

On Sept. 20, the integrated Long March rocket and Tiangong module were wheeled out of China’s VAB while sitting on top of the Mobile Launch Platform and transferred to the launch gantry at Jiuguan.

The goal of the Tiangong 1 mission is to carry out China’s first human spaceflight related rendezvous and docking mission and to demonstrate that Chinese space engineers have mastered the complicated technology required for a successful outcome.

These skills are akin in complexity to NASA’s Gemini manned program of the 1960’s which paved the way for NASA’s Apollo missions and led directly to the first manned landing on the moon in 1969 by Apollo 11.

Chinas stated goal is to construct a 60 ton Skylab sized space station in earth orbit by 2020.

Check out this CCTV video for further details and imagery of the Chinese space hardware which shows the how China will expand the reach and influence of their space program.

View this Chinese video from NDTV for a glimpse at Chinas long range Space Station plans.

The 40 foot long Tiangong 1 space platform is unmanned and will serve as the docking target for China’s manned Shenzhou capsules in a series of stepping stone learning flights. It is solar powered and equipped to operate in a man-tended mode for short duration missions and in an unmanned mode over the long term.

The initial rendezvous and docking mission will be conducted by the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft, which will fly in an unmanned configuration for the first docking test. Shenzhou 8 is scheduled to soar to space before the end of 2011.

If successful, China plans to quickly follow up with the launch of two manned Shenzhou flights to dock at Tiangong 1 during 2012 – namely Shenzhou 9 & Shenzhou 10.

The multi astronaut chinese crews would float into Tiangong 1 and remain on board for a short duration period of a few days or weeks. The crew would conduct medical, space science and technology tests and experiments.

China’s first female astronaut may be selected to fly as a crew member on one of the two Shenzhou flights in 2012.

Meanwhile, all American astronauts will be completely dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for trips to the International Space Station. Russia is still working to correct the third stage malfunction which doomed the recent Progress cargo resupply launch and put a halt to Soyuz launches.

Engineers and technicians are in the process of checking out all Tiangong 1 systems and preliminary weather reports from Chinese media appear favorable for launch.

Shenzhou 8 has also been delivered to the Jinquan launch complex for check out of all systems

Get set for China’s attempt at a ‘Space Spectacular’

The integrated Tiangong 1 spacecraft and CZ-2F combination is transferring to the launch site