June 10, 2013
Update: June 26, 2013
The crew of Shenzhou-10 – Nie Haisheng, Zhang Xioguang and Wang Yaping — are now back on the ground, having completed their 15-day mission to the Tiangong-1 space station. Here’s video of the crew emerging from their capsule at the landing site in Inner Mongolia:
Update: June 25, 2013:
The Shenzhou-10 capsule has undocked from Tiangong-1, and the astronauts are getting ready to return to Earth. Landing is scheduled for 8 a.m. Wednesday morning, Chinese time — or 8 p.m. Tuesday, U.S. eastern time.
Update: June 24, 2013
Another spaceflight ritual checked off the list: the presidential phone call. China’s President Xi Jinping talked to the orbiting Shenzhou astronauts by phone from mission control earlier today:
The astronauts did a manual un-docking and re-docking with the Tiangong-1 station yesterday, and are expected to return to Earth early Wednesday.
Update: June 20, 2013
Shenzhou astronauts broadcast China’s first “lesson from space” on Thursday morning, with Wang Yaping as the teacher, commander Nie Haisheng as her assistant, and Zhang Xioguang as the cameraman. Here’s the whole 45-minute lesson (with English translation helpfully provided). It was watched by more than 60 million school children in China. The continuous broadcast was relayed through the Tianlian communication satellites — China’s equivalent to the TDRSS satellites that greatly improved NASA’s communication with orbiting astronauts back in the space shuttle days.
It’s fascinating to watch China recreate half a century of human spaceflight evolution in just a few years. Wang’s demonstrations covered all the marvels that astronaut teachers have been wowing students with since the beginning of the space age: floating balls of water, spinning gyroscopes, stars that don’t twinkle, and 16 sunrises a day. As Zhang told the students at the end of the lesson, “deep space is a place full of secrets.”
Here’s a vintage video from 40 years ago — astronaut Owen Garriott teaching much the same kinds of lessons from NASA’s first space station, Skylab:
Update: June 19, 2013
Wang Yaping is scheduled to teach her lesson from space — a first for the Chinese — around 10 a.m. on Thursday, according to Chinese media. (That’s 10 p.m. Wednesday in the Eastern U.S. time zone). China Central TV has a live feed here.
Update: June 17, 2013
As promised, the Tiangong-1 module has new flooring. The Shenzhou-10 astronauts did a little Home Depot installation job on Friday.
Chinese media also passed on a message that American teacher-in-space Barbara Morgan sent to Wang Yaping, who plans to deliver a science lecture from orbit during her mission. Calling Wang “China’s first teacher in space” seems a bit of a stretch, since she’s not a professional teacher, and practically all astronauts, from all nations, interact with school children during their missions. But this apparently will be more of a formal physics lesson, as opposed to just a fun demonstration. Let’s hope, as Morgan wrote, that “these are all going to be broadcast on the Internet, so that all of those on the ground in the world can watch.”
Update: June 14, 2013
Chinese TV coverage of the Shenzhou-10 mission seems a little stingier than on past missions, or maybe the astronauts are busier. Still, this segment (in Chinese) shows a few scenes right after the crew boarded the Tiangong-1 module yesterday.
The module still appears to have its flexible, trampoline-like floor. During the pre-launch press conference, Chinese space agency spokesperson Wu Ping mentioned that the floor would be changed, so maybe we’ll see a more solid one by mission’s end.
Update: June 13, 2013
Shenzhou-10 docked with the Tiangong-1 mini-space station (what else to call something smaller than the Spacehab module that used to ride in the U.S. space shuttle’s cargo bay?) at 1:18 p.m. Thursday afternoon, Chinese time. For the next 12 days you’ll be able to follow their combined orbital track to see when the docked vehicles are flying overhead.
Here’s a shot of the crew inside Tiangong-1. More photos are here, from the Xinhua news agency.
Update: June 12, 2013
The Shenzhou-10 astronauts are on their way to the Tiangong-1 space station. If the orbit-matching and rendezvous follow the same timetable as last year’s Shenzhou-9 mission, we can expect the docking to take place early Thursday afternoon, Beijing time (U.S. Eastern time is 12 hours behind, so it would be late Wednesday night/early Thursday morning here).
CCTV has broadcast a few scenes (in Chinese) of the weightless crew inside their Shenzhou spacecraft:
Update: June 11, 2013
The walkout to the launch pad has been a ritual for astronauts and cosmonauts for more than 50 years, and each of the three spacefaring nations — the U.S., Russia, and China — does it a little differently. “Walkout” is a bit of a misnomer, actually. The crews ride in a bus to the pad, and their sendoff before boarding the bus is just the last in a series of goodbyes from well-wishers, family, and even the viewing public. American astronauts are probably the most casual. After suiting up, space shuttle crews would quickly board their Astrovan, waving to a crowd of friends, co-workers and news photographers, sometimes without even breaking their stride. Russians like to pile on the ritual, with seemingly endless signing ceremonies, tree-plantings, and other customs added over the years, in both Star City (where cosmonauts say a tearful goodbye to their families) and the launch center at Baikonur.
Here’s how the Chinese do it. The Shenzhou-10 crew sendoff earlier today was a mix of protocol and pageantry, with a slightly more military vibe than you’d see at an American or Russian launch.
June 10, 2013
A crew of three Chinese astronauts is making final preparations for a 15-day mission to the nation’s Tiangong-1 space station. Their launch, on a Long March 2F Y10 rocket, is scheduled for 5:38 p.m. Chinese time (5:38 a.m. U.S. Eastern time) on Tuesday.
The Shenzhou-10 mission will be very similar to the Shenzhou-9 flight a year ago, with a couple of minor adjustments (for example, this time the astronauts won’t work round-the-clock in shifts). Once again the crew consists of two men and one woman. Commander Nie Haisheng was the flight engineer on Shenzhou-6 in 2005, and Zhang Xioguang and Wang Yaping are both rookies.
Here’s the crew’s press conference, from earlier today:
Here’s a profile of Wang, the country’s second female astronaut:
And here’s American planetary scientist John Lewis offering perspective on China’s human space exploration program in an interview for Chinese TV.
March 25, 2013
Looking for a science book to read? Something with eccentric characters, irrational obsessions, and extreme experiments? Try Alex Boese’s book Electrified Sheep: Glass-eating Scientists, Nuking the Moon, and More Bizarre Experiments (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012).
Boese notes that when Pierre and Marie Curie first isolated radium in their lab in 1902, the mysterious metal appeared to produce a limitless amount of energy: “And where there is energy, medical entrepreneurs noted, there must be health! Physicians swung into action, promoting the beneficial effects of ‘radiumizing’ the body to an eager public. Retailers sold radium-treated water, describing the faintly glowing solution as ‘liquid sunshine.’ ” The radium craze persisted well into the 1930s; even Marie Curie insisted on the metal’s health benefits, maintaining this belief right up until 1934, when she died of radiation exposure. Boese writes:
A curious descendant of the invisible energy enthusiasm can even be found in a rather unlikely place—the Chinese space programme. Chinese scientists, from the very start of their space programme, have expressed great interest in the effect of cosmic rays on plants, hoping that such rays might produce Super Veggies to feed their growing population. At first they used high-altitude balloons to fly seeds up to the edge of space. Now seeds are taken aboard the Shenzhou spacecraft. The resulting crops, grown back on earth, are occasionally served in Shanghai restaurants. Space spuds, it’s reported, taste more “glutinous” than terrestrial varieties.
On 12 October 2005 the Shenzhou VI spacecraft blasted off carrying a particularly special cargo—40 grams of pig sperm to be exposed to cosmic rays. Whether or not the experiment generated positive results is unknown, because, after the initial announcement, a shroud of official state secrecy descended upon the mission. But maybe, somewhere on a farm in China, a giant, cosmic-ray-enhanced pig is rolling happily in the mud.
July 5, 2012
Reactions to China’s recent Shenzhou-9 mission, and to the Chinese space program in general, often seem like a Rorschach test, with Western observers variously seeing it as a threat or an opportunity, with purported goals ranging from setting up lunar bases to launching anti-satellite attacks.
There is general agreement, though, that Chinese space officials are not racing the United States as they recreate—with the number of steps greatly compressed—the 50-year technical evolution of human spaceflight. In just five missions, the Shenzhou program has gone from a Gagarin-esque solo flight to placing a small space station in orbit.
Gregory Kulacki, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, argues convincingly that China’s ambitions to orbit a space station date to the 1980s, and was primarily an attempt to keep up with other space powers who started planning their own stations around that same time.
Kulacki’s background paper on the subject is well worth reading, and has interesting detail on the internal deliberations that led China to abandon the notion of building a winged space shuttle and go with the Shenzhou capsule instead. He describes how 60 Chinese research organizations were asked for proposals for a reusable launch vehicle, six of which were chosen for further study in June 1988.
Five of the six proposals called for a space plane or space shuttle. The sixth proposal, in a challenge to the original request, called for a non-reusable launch vehicle with significantly less lift capacity, which could carry a much lighter capsule for use in a possible human program. In the end, after four years of increasingly contentious debate, this was the proposal that was adopted.
Opponents of the capsule proposal argued the combination of an existing Chinese launcher and small space capsule, like those used by the U.S. Apollo and Soviet Soyuz programs, was outdated technology. In August 1989 Ding Henggao, the director of [the Commission on Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense] and the head of an ad hoc National Leadership Small Group Office on Space, received a letter from the Advanced Technology Research Small Group of the Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT). The CALT letter argued a reusable space shuttle was “far superior” to the proposed capsule and was “the trend in international space development.” France had proposed a small space plane and the Soviet Union was beginning to develop its own shuttle program (which the new Russian government canceled in 1993 after only a single flight). The CALT group argued that launching astronauts in a space capsule rather than a shuttle would “not only not bring acclaim” to China’s space program, it would “disgrace the nation.”
Tu Shancheng, who headed the Project 863 experts group on space, called into question the value of a space shuttle. He calculated it would take a very large number of launches to realize the economy promised by any large reusable launch vehicle. Regardless of what China planned, it was highly unlikely China would approach such a high number of launches, especially since even the United States was well below the threshold Tu believed was needed to make a space shuttle economical.
Others members of the Project 863 expert group on space argued a space shuttle was unnecessarily complex, and carried a high risk of long delays given the state of Chinese aerospace technology at the time. Curiously, none of the Chinese histories mention the impact of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on this debate. Yet, for surprising and accidental reasons, it was this event, more than any other, which may have helped China’s experts move towards a consensus on the more modest capsule proposal. The accident coincided with an emerging Chinese interest in entering the satellite launch business.
Kulacki goes on to explain how, in the months following the Challenger accident, the United States decided that its space shuttle would get out of the business of launching commercial satellites. Chinese officials saw an opening for the county’s Long March rocket to compete for that business, and approved a more capable version of the Long March.
Success in … bringing the new launch vehicle into service quickly played a role in the ongoing debate over the human spaceflight program. China suddenly had an ability to place approximately 9.5 tons into low Earth orbit. That was enough to cover the first two stages of the tentative 30-year plan for a space station that was under consideration. Getting that plan underway in a reasonable period of time now seemed more feasible. It was at this point that [advocates of a Chinese space shuttle] set aside their preferences…and got behind the capsule proposal of a space capsule carried on a non-reusable launcher.
November 14, 2011
China’s Shenzhou 8 spacecraft and Tiangong-1 mini-space station separated briefly in orbit today, then reunited, in another demonstration of docking techniques for future space stations.
This animation calls it a “kiss in space,” although somehow I can’t imagine that term being used for NASA’s Gemini 8 docking in 1966. Maybe it was because there were astronauts onboard.