JING Haipeng, 45, Chinese PLA Air Force, commander, second flight Previous mission: Shenzhou 7 (2008)
LIU Wang, 43, Chinese PLA Air Force, flight engineer LIU Yang, 34, Chinese PLA Air Force, flight engineer
This mission came three years after Shenzhou 7 and provided China with a number of space “firsts” and a significant leap in manned space flight experience and operations. The primary objective was to place the first crew on board the inaugural space laboratory. There was also a female taikonaut in the crew, who became the first Chinese female in space. Launch of Shenzhou 9 occurred on the 49th anniversary of the launch of Valentina Tereshkova’s Vostok 6, the first to carry a female cosmonaut into space. Liu Yang’s entry into the record books also came two days before the 29th anniversary of Sally Ride becoming the first American woman in space, aboard STS-7. Liu Yang had been selected as a member of the second (2010) group of taikonauts.
Forecasts of the flight had been circulated for some time before the hardware was brought together to fly the mission. The Chinese had indicated as early as 2003 their desire to create a space laboratory, supplied by Shenzhou spacecraft. In the West, this seemed very reminiscent of the Soviet Soyuz-Salyut missions of 1971-1985. The Shenzhou 9 mission was part of a four-spacecraft program designed to provide the Chinese with experience in space station operations. First, the pre-fitted space laboratory, called Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”), would be launched unmanned into Earth orbit. This would be followed by Shenzhou 8, also unmanned, which would test the docking system and docking port. Shenzhou 9
Liu Yang, the first Chinese female to fly in space, pictured at the 2012IAF Congress in Rome, Italy, October 2012. Photo copyright: Brian Harvey, used with permission
would then take the first crew to occupy Tiangong and, if successful, a second manned mission, Shenzhou 10, would complete the program.
The launch of Tiangong-1 (2011-053A) by the upgraded Long March 2F (Tl) occurred on September 29, 2011. Over the following month, the systems of the station were activated, evaluated, and tested prior to the launch of Shenzhou 8 (2011-063A), also by a Long March 2F (G), on October 31. The Shenzhou performed an automated docking on November 3 and remained docked with the station for structural integrity tests between the two docked vehicles over the next two weeks.
On November 14, Shenzhou 8 undocked, backed away, re-rendezvoused, and docked a second time with the station as a further test of the automated systems. Shenzhou 8 was undocked a second time on November 16 to complete a short solo flight and landing the next day after a flight of 18 days. These successful steps paved the way for the manned attempt at docking with Tiangong but, as the months slipped into 2012, little information was forthcoming other than that the crew may include a female. The delays caused some in the West to suggest that there were problems either with Shenzhou 8, the station, or in the preparations for Shenzhou 9. But this overlooked the cautious nature of the Chinese program and the absence of the “race” situation that was a prominent part of the early Soviet and American years.
Behind the scenes, preparations for Shenzhou 9 were well under way. The crew assignments were made in March 2012 but remained unannounced until just prior to launch, although many Western space sleuths were able to deduce the likely candidates ahead of the official announcements. The spacecraft assigned to the flight arrived at the Jinquan launch center for processing on April 9, and then the launch vehicle was delivered to the launch site a month later on May 9.
With typical Chinese efficiency, the combined spacecraft and launcher was rolled 1.5 km to the launchpad on June 9, in an operation that took one hour to complete. The sequence of previous missions suggested that a launch could occur sometime between June 14 and 16. The Chinese authorities confirmed this and indicated a planned mission of about 13 days, including an automated docking with Tiangong-1 and 10 days of joint operations, during which the three-person crew (still unidentified officially) would work inside the station. Towards the end of the mission, it was stated, the crew would conduct a manual docking test before final separation and a short solo flight, with reentry and landing the following day.
The three-day countdown began on June 13 and the names of the crew were formally announced in the days prior to launch, making headlines around the world. The launch on June 16 went flawlessly and it took only 9 minutes 45 seconds to place Shenzhou 9 in orbit to begin its 2-day chase towards Tiangong-1. On June 18, the spacecraft made its final approach to the station 140 minutes prior to the planned docking time. There had been five maneuvering bums to adjust the spacecraft’s orbit prior to start of the automated rendezvous. The approach and docking was fully automated, although Liu Wang was ready to take over manual control if necessary. The automated system worked perfectly, however, with preplanned holds at 5 km, 140 m, and 30 m. The docking system was very similar to the Androgynous Peripheral Attach System with two rings first used on Apollo-Soyuz in 1975. The docking between Shenzhou 9 and Tiangong-1 occurred on the second day after launch and was followed a short time later by the crew transferring across to the space laboratory.
During their stay on board the station, the trio rotated their sleeping cycle so that at least one crew member was awake at all times to monitor onboard systems. Most of their time was taken up with evaluations and tests of the new space station, including several small maneuvering engine burns. The science program of 10 experiments included five medical studies of the taikonauts’ own physical condition during China’s first extended duration space flight. A series of air samples were taken to evaluate the status and condition of the station and the crew also completed a series of questionnaires on their health and operational tasks. They were also able to communicate with the ground via email. Much was made of the Chinese food available, of their enjoying weightlessness, and of Liu Yang performing tai chi for the cameras. At one point, Liu Wang played a harmonica and all three seemed to be adapting well to their new environment.
The medical experiments focused upon physical exercise, physiology, cell biology, and sleep studies. The air purification system and other onboard systems were also tested and evaluated. Tiangong-1 is the first of a scheduled three stations in the series, leading up to the launch of a larger station (about the size of the U. S. Skylab) due in 2020. These studies in Tiangong-1 will go a long way towards determining which procedures or equipment will be best suited for inclusion on those larger, longer duration stations.
Several celebrations were marked during the mission. On June 26, the crew held a conversation with President Hu Jintao. They also celebrated the Dragon Boat Festival and talked with the oceanauts on the Jiaolong submersible (named after a mythological sea dragon) 7,020 meters beneath the sea in the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, part of China’s Deep Dive program. The three taikonauts also had regular contact with family members, who visited Mission Control.
On June 24, the crew mothballed the station and reentered the Shenzhou to undock after 5 days 21 hours and 1 minute. They backed the Shenzhou away some 400 meters before bringing the vehicle back in under manual control. They halted again at 140 m and then 30 m before completing the first Chinese manual docking. The two craft were separate for about 1 hour 30 minutes. Once the docking connections and seals had been checked for integrity, the hatches were opened and the crew reentered the space lab for a few more days of work before returning to Earth. The Shenzhou was undocked a second time on June 28 after 4 days 21 hours 13 minutes, giving a total docked time across the two periods of approximately 10 days 8 hours 14 minutes.
Shenzhou 9 completed its expected short solo flight following the undocking, allowing the crew time to prepare for entry and landing the next day. The recovery of the spacecraft was completed on June 29, with the spacecraft landing safely but heavily and apparently bouncing and rolling before coming to a halt.
Subsequent reports indicated that the Descent Module had actually missed its intended landing target by 9.94 miles (16 km), though this was still within the planned 22.37 miles (36 km) by 22.37 miles (36 km) landing footprint. The DM landed near a small river, hitting a slope on one of the riverbanks before coming to a rest. Rescue crews were soon on the scene and the three occupants seemed none the worse for their ordeal. They departed the landing zone a few hours after landing and then completed a 2-week postffight recuperation and debriefing period. The mission was a huge success for the program and for China on the world stage, with talk of the next stage—Shenzhou 10 visiting the station—being likely as early as 2013, reflecting a renewed confidence in the Chinese program.
As a new pioneer was feted, another was mourned. Less than a month after the landing of Shenzhou 9 and the flight of the first Chinese woman in space, the American lady with that honor, Sally Ride (STS-7, STS-41G), sadly died on July 23, 2012 after a long battle against pancreatic cancer. She was just 61.
288th manned space flight 4th Chinese manned space flight 4th manned Shenzhou mission
1st manned Chinese automated docking mission (June 18)
1 st Chinese manual docking (June 24)
1st resident crew on Tiangong-1
1 st Chinese taikonaut to make two missions (Jing Haipeng) 1st Chinese female in space (Liu Yang)