The Chinese space program successfully performed a 15-day mission in Earth-orbit, their longest manned space mission so far, marking a significant milestone in China’s journey into the final frontier. On June 26, the Shenzhou 10 capsule safely returned the three astronauts to Earth.
From its start, the mission was graced with reverence and momentous occasions. Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the launch ceremony on June 11 at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu Province in northwestern China. As reported by Chinese news agency Xinhua, President Xi said that the mission would “represent the lofty aspirations of the Chinese people to explore space.”
President Xi also spoke with the astronauts via video call on June 24, affirming that their mission is “part of the dream to make China stronger.” In another special event, female astronaut Wang Yaping gave a 50-minute science lecture from orbit, to the delight of 60 million Chinese students. Wang demonstrated, among other things, the effects of a zero-gravity environment on the surface tension of water and answered questions on topics as varied as the recycling of water in space, orbital debris, and the effects of zero-gravity on the human body.
The Shenzhou 10 capsule rode a Long March-2F rocket into orbit on June 11 and three days later docked with the uncrewed Tiangong-1 space station, which has been in orbit since 2011. This first docking maneuver was accomplished automatically.
On June 23, the Shenzhou 10 crew performed a manual separation from Tiangong-1. Later that day, astronaut Nie Haisheng manually piloted Shenzhou 10 back to Tiangong-1 and docked with the station. Wang Yaping and fellow astronaut Zhang Xiaoguang provided support by monitoring the capsule’s instruments.
The purpose of Shenzhou 10’s mission was to assess docking technology and astronaut support systems, and continue to lay the foundation for the next phase of China’s space program. Tiangong-1 is merely a prototype module and will not receive additional visitors. The Tiangong-2 and Tiangong-3 modules will launch in 2015 and further China’s ambition of launching and assembling the components of a permanent space station in the early 2020s. China is currently building Long March-5 rockets capable of ferrying 20 tons of cargo into Earth-orbit to build and maintain the eventual space station.
Even with such notable achievements as Shenzhou 10’s recent mission, the director of China’s manned space program, Wang Zhaoyao, admitted that “there is still a very large gap between China and the leading space countries in terms of manned space technology and capability.”