2012-06-18 (atimes.com and By Brendan O’Reilly) – The successful docking of China’s manned Shenzhou-9 spacecraft with the country’s Tiangong-1 space lab on Monday heralds a new age. A major shift in the world order is occurring above Earth, with the Chinese space program expanding as the efforts of other nations wind down.
Millions of Chinese watched on live television as Shenzhou-9 blasted off into orbit on Saturday. The Chinese character “fu”, an auspicious symbol for good luck and fortune, adorned the cockpit.
The final launch date wasn’t revealed until the day before the launch, probably due to unpredictable weather conditions. An anonymous government source had said that June 16 was the earliest launch window. This information proved to be correct, and Shenzhou-9 began its ascent on June 16 at 18:37 Beijing time.
The identity of the first Chinese woman to be sent into space was also revealed only at the last minute. Early reports had narrowed the field into a two-woman race between Captain Wang Yaping and Major Liu Yang. The selection of Liu Yang, from Henan province, was announced at a press conference the day before the launch.
The selection criteria for these two women reveal much about Chinese values. Both are military pilots with distinguished records: Major Liu managed to land an aircraft in an emergency situation after it collided with pigeons during takeoff, and Captain Wang flew rescue missions during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
As with all Chinese astronauts, or taikonauts, the women were required to have good skin, no body odor, pleasant breath, and no cavities. Most interestingly, both women are mothers. There are rumors that only women who have already had a child were considered, due to Chinese fears of the potentially harmful effects of spaceflight on female fertility.
Shenzhou-9 follows three other manned missions. Shenzhou-5, launched in 2005, was China’s first crewed space flight, followed by Shenzhou-6 in 2005, and Shenzhou-7 in 2008, which saw China’s first spacewalk exercise.
Launched in October 2011, Shenzhou 8 was an unmanned flight. However, it carried out the country’s automatic space docking with the Tiangong 1, China’s first orbital “lab module” (launched one month earlier).
Shenzhou-9 was tasked with performing China’s first manned space docking with Tiangong -1, a complex procedure that officials have confirmed was completed just after 14:00 Beijing time on Monday, June 18.
A successful docking would mean “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”, Zhou Jianping, the main architect of China’s manned space program, told Chinese media before the launch.