On Sunday, China launched a two person crew to its newly orbited Tiangong-2 space station. The launch, labelled Shenzhou-11, took place aboard a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center located in the Gobi desert, lifting off at 7:30 PM EDT, which was 7:30 AM local.
The crew of the Shenzhou-11 carrier vehicle, which closely resembles the Russian Soyuz spacecraft upon which it was patterned, are mission commander Jing Haipeng, who is making his third trip to space, and Chen Dong, who is making his first.
After rendezvousing with the Tiangong-2, in two days, the two men will spend the next 30 days or so conducting experiments in a mission which is intended to pave the way for a much larger, modular Chinese space station which will be launched in in coming years.
Old Habits Die Hard
Like many Chinese space missions, this one began under a veil of secrecy, with the crew names and mission details being withheld until until the day before launch. Even then, CCTV, a state controlled television network, cited the wrong day and time for the mission.
The continued penchant for tightly guarding its information makes for an interesting conflict with much of the rationale behind the Chinese space program, which is heavily promoted as demonstrating to its citizens, as well as others around the world, that China is technologically on par with the United States and Russia. In this case, a small group of foreign journalists were invited to witness yesterday’s launch, and this BBC account captures the odd nature of the nation’s conflicting desires.
There is even some confusion regarding how many missions will be launched to Tiangong-2, with some some sources saying there will be two, as happened with the previous three crew-member Tiangong-1 missions in 2012 and 2013, and more recent accounts stating that this will be the only mission.
One thing is clear, however. China, which was excluded from ISS at the insistence of the U.S., is having a bit of a field day in reminding people that not only does its chief international rival still not have a domestic crew launch capability, the mid 2020’s could see it without a space station as well, as future of ISS beyond 2024 is rather unclear.