BEIJING — It might not have been a giant step for mankind, but the launch Saturday of a piloted space capsule to dock with China’s space station prototype marked the country’s breakthrough into the exclusive club once made up only of the United States and Russia.
And as far as womankind is concerned, there was another first. One of the three astronauts in the Shenzhou 9 capsule was 33-year-old Liu Yang, the first Chinese woman in space.
Shenzhou 9 was launched at 6:37 p.m. against a vivid blue sky from the Jiuquan satellite launch center at the edge of the Gobi desert. Televised nationally, the launch prompted a round of applause in the command center as the capsule separated from its carrier rocket and entered orbit.
“Today’s successful launch is a great first step,” CCTV host Kang Hui said. “I hope the astronauts will bring us more good news like this in the coming days.”
The trickiest part of the 13-day mission will come when the capsule docks with the Tiangong 1 space module, a prototype of a space station about the size of a school bus, which is orbiting approximately 213 miles above Earth. The docking is expected Monday.
The same docking procedure was carried out in November by an unmanned capsule, the Shenzhou 8, but the degree of difficulty is greater when carrying a crew.
The Chinese were excluded from the International Space Station by a vote of the U.S. Congress, citing fear of technology transfers. The Chinese have said they will build their own, smaller station by 2020, the year funding for the International Space Station expires.
China’s appetite and budget for space exploration appears to be growing as others are getting out of the business.
“Ironically, by the time they finish their space station in the early 2020s, the Chinese might be the only people left up there. Absent changes in current U.S., Russian and European space policies, the International Space Station will be decommissioned and deorbited in 2020,” analyst Gregory Kulacki noted in a report last week by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
China’s objective is to test docking mechanisms and life-support systems that will be essential if Beijing is to achieve its objective of operating its own space station. The Chinese, who sent their first man into space in 2003, have also said they want to send a man to the moon.
As latecomers to the space race, the Chinese are still substantially behind, perhaps by as much as 40 years, in the estimation of Morris Jones, an Australian scholar who published a book on the Chinese space industry.
“Right now, the Chinese space program is roughly the same as the American space program towards the very end of the 1960s, though clearly they are not in a position to fly to the moon,” Jones said.
Jones sees China’s space ambitions in much the same light as America’s and Russia’s, serving military, technological and propaganda goals.
“Human spaceflight is a very advanced achievement, and China is attempting to show its growing strength,” he said.
In the live television coverage, a camera in the capsule showed a large red banner behind the astronauts with the ubiquitous Chinese character fu, meaning luck. After the Shenzhou 9 separated from its carrier rocket, the astronauts waved to the camera, and workers at the command center waved a Chinese flag.
Although three astronauts (or taikonauts, as they are called here, using the Chinese word for space, taikong) are aboard the capsule, most of the media’s attention has been lavished on Liu. Stories in the state press have described how she would be allowed to bring toxin-free makeup on the mission and would be allocated extra rations of water for washing, although nobody is permitted to shower.
Like her male colleagues, Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang, Liu is an officer of the People’s Liberation Army and, as the Chinese state media noted, a member of the Communist Party. In interviews, Liu said she’d wanted to become a bus driver as a child.
As a pilot, she is credited with making a daring emergency landing in 2003 after a flock of birds struck the engine of her plane. The Chinese state press has compared her to Sally Ride and Valentina Tereshkova, the first American and Russian women in space respectively.