China’s Shenzhou-9 Space Mission A Success!

China’s Xinhua news agency reports today that “China’s Shenzhou-9 Mission Successful“. The crew of the groundbreaking space mission landed safely in inner Mongolia on Friday. This marks a significant milestone in China’s rapidly developing space program.

This mission was historically significant on many levels. As earlier reported by our own Debjyoti Bardhan, China successfully docked their spacecraft with the Tiangong-I Space Station module not only once automatically, but a second time using manual controls. Also, of historical significance is the first female Chinese astronaut, Liu Yang, pictured on the far right below.

China's Astronauts
Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng, Liu Wang, and Liu Yang being celebrated after their return(Courtesy Xinhua/Zhang Ling)

Once on the ground, medical staff entered the capsule to report that all were in good condition. While in the capsule the astronauts reported to their command center, “We have returned, and we feel good.”

The success of this mission serves to bolster confidence that China can be a formidable player in manned space exploration. They are now confident that they can move on with the next stages of their space program.

The success of the procedure shows that China has completely grasped space rendezvous and docking technologies and the country is fully capable of transporting humans and cargo to an orbiter in space, which is essential for the country’s plans to build a space station around 2020.

It will be interesting to see how China’s future plans work out. Until now only the Russians and Americans were able to achieve such missions to space. Until this point the Americans had mostly objected to any participation by China in the International Space Station missions. China is spending massive amounts of money to bring this program online to the tune of billions of dollars. Hopefully, someday our countries can unify around a common goal and pool their resources to better serve all of humanity. For the time being, it appears everyone is just showing off what they can do on their own. Congratulations to China on this historic achievement!

China Achieves Successful Manual Docking Of Spacecraft With Space Station

China has done what only the Americans and the Russians have had the right to brag about till now. Not only that, they did it, undid it and did it again! I am talking about the manual docking of the Shenzhou spacecraft on their Tiangong-I Space Station module.

Docking with the Tiangong-1 space station module.

The First Docking

The Chinese had launched their their Shenzhou-9 spacecraft to rendezvous with the Tiangong space station module on the 16th of June. Now, finally, on the 24th of June, the Chinese have attempted and succeeded in docking the modules. While Tiangong-1 is unmanned, Shenzhou wasn’t.

This is China’s first shot at an unmanned docking, marking a historic day when they achieve what only the Americans and the Russians have been able to achieve before them. But then, if it’s the Chinese, there’s always something more.

Docking Once More!

The Chinese astronauts, or taikonauts as they are called, undocked the two modules earlier today, and drove them apart by almost 400 meters. Then they attempted to manually maneuver the Shenzhou capsule, with Liu Wang, China’s first woman astronaut and a former fighter pilot, at the steering wheel. The procedure was a grand success! The refitted spacecraft-module configuration is now orbiting the Earth about 343 meters above the Earth’s surface.

China’s Manned Space Mission Program guys are a happy lot. Says Wu Ping, spokeswoman of the Manned Space Program:

The success of the manual rendezvous and docking mission represents another important phase achievement of the Shenzhou 9 and Tiangong 1 rendezvous and docking mission

And then adds

The three astronauts will once again enter the orbiting module of Tiangong 1 to carry out scientific experiments.

The crew returns on the 28th of June, touching down on Earth on the 29th.

China Sends Its First Woman Into Space As It Sets Up Its Space Station

China has joined the space race. The Asian giant with a booming economy launched its Shenzhou spacecraft carrying three astronauts, including the 33 year-old Liu Yang.

Liu Yang, the Chinese astronaut and first Chinese woman in space. (Courtesy: Reuters)

The spacecraft will dock with the spacestation module Tiangong 1. Tiangong means Heavenly Palace in Chinese. This is the second step in China’s long-time plans to put a space station in orbit, rivalling the International Space Station. The target year is 2020.

The Shenzhou spacecraft

While Tiangong 1 is nowhere close to the magnificence of the International Space Station, it has to be remembered that this is just a test module. The docking techniques being used by China have been mastered by only the Soviets and the Americans before. A space lab is on the cards and China is putting heavy stress on manned missions.

This is in complete contrast with the ambitions of the American space program, which is now focussing on unmanned and a future manned mission to Mars. While it has been only the Chinese government which has been funding and operating the space program, NASA has been encouraging private players like SpaceX and Orbital Corps into entering the space race. Of course, the end of the Space Shuttle program has a lot to do with that!

The Chinese are optimistic about their chances. Said Zhou Jianping, the chief designer of China’s manned mission:

I believe that we can achieve this goal, because we already have the basic technological capability

The Sino-US competition is getting hotter and, in a twist of fate, entering a space race just like the one of the Cold War days. History does repeat itself… hopefully in a more positive way.

SpaceX: First Private Launch To Space Station Scheduled For Tomorrow!

Though not as big as the one in 1969, this is still a jump big enough to cause NASA to spend sleepless nights. SpaceX, short for Space eXploration Technologies, is due to make its maiden launch tomorrow, i.e. on the 19th of May, 2012. Going sub-orbital will be SpaceX’s baby steps towards actually going for a fully manned space mission.

The launch time on 19th May is  1:15 AM Pacific / 4:15 AM Eastern / 08:15 UTC as taken from the SpaceX site.

The live webcast link is:

Proud: SpaceX CEO Elon Muck with the Falcon-9 rockets.

SpaceX and…

SpaceX will launch their Dragon space capsule atop the powerful Falcon-9 rockets. The capsule will contain important supplies for astronauts at the ISS, like food, other essential supplies and certain science equipment.

This is a part of the NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Program and is designed to act as a replacement for the Space Shuttle, which carried man, machine and supplies. For now, man is excluded from the scenario and the first few missions will all be unmanned.

The Dragon space capsule doesn’t require much alteration to house a human being. That is definitely on the charts, but it is not clear how soon that’s going to happen.

The historic launch!

…Beyond SpaceX

NASA for the first time is stepping out of its own shell and allowing other companies to participate in space. SpaceX, having a $1.6 billion contract for 12 cargo flights with NASA, is one player. The other player is Orbital Sciences Corps. and they have been contracted to actually carry out manned flights. The contract is a lucrative $1.9 billion for 8 flights.

Orbital Corps also promises private spaceflight experience for those who can shell out the money. The exact amount is not known right now, though.

Go SpaceX Go! That’s the new motto. NASA is keeping its fingers crossed. This is one experiment that they definitely want to get right.

SpaceX Delays Launch To Space Station, Dreams About Going To Mars In Future

The euphoria has to wait for a few more days to set in and the wait just gets longer. SpaceX’s first launch of its unmanned Dragon space capsule was scheduled for 7th May, 2012, but has now been shifted to May 19th at the earliest. There was some news of the launch happening on the 10th of May, but that has also been laid to rest.


SpaceX, short and snazzy for Space eXploration, is a private company which has won a contract from NASA for doing 12 flyby’s to the International Space Station, carrying food supplies and other essentials for the astronauts up there. NASA is closely monitoring SpaceX’s progress, providing logistical support as and where needed, since NASA wants a replacement for the Space Shuttle Program. Right now, only Russia has the capability to ferry astronauts to and from the Space Station. NASA wants its piece of the ISS pie back!

And thus SpaceX! The contracts, worth $1.6 billion, with SpaceX for 12 cargo deliveries and another with Orbital Sciences Corps, worth $1.9 billion, for eight cargo deliveries, will help NASA provide a stop gap arrangement for the maintenance of the International Space Station. NASA might want us to see differently. Says NASA astronaut Don Pettit:

Now government-run agencies like NASA can concentrate on the frontier aspect of being in space. They can define what we’re doing and then we can have the commercial entities supply us the goods and services we need in order to do the mission.

Fine, except that NASA has been watching SpaceX very closely, rather than just giving it a sideways glance.

Saving Humanity

Meanwhile, even before getting its feet wet – or in the air, in this case – SpaceX has been dreaming big. Co- founded, owned and managed by Elon Musk, the co-founder of PayPal, SpaceX wants to go to Mars. Why? Because he believes that the only chance that humans have for survival is becoming a multi-planet species.

There are a lot of positives for SpaceX – a launch in a few days, continued NASA support and a big dream for the future. Join the bandwagon in saying Go SpaceX, Go!

China Trying To Get An Astronaut On The Moon By 2025!

China is fast becoming the biggest threat’ to the American supremacy in space. They plan to put their very own astronaut on the Moon. The intention of a manned spacecraft to the Moon comes after the Chinese had revealed extravagant plans to build its own space station. An officially written white paper provides the future goals for the Chinese space program.

A more common scene? (Courtesy: The Washington Post)

China plans to enter the space exploration grand stage in three steps. The first one involves the said lunar mission. The next one involves replicating what NASA has done with the LRO, viz. putting a satellite around the moon. The last one involves returning lunar samples to study back to Earth.

The proposed Chinese space station

This is probably the worst news for NASA’s space program. It is still to recover from the retirement of the space shuttle fleet and is dependent heavily on the Russians for trips to and from the space station. Also, the weakening economy is not helping things.

The Chinese have a long way to go, though, before they can even begin to think about challenging the US supremacy. No hard deadline has been given, but unofficial word indicates that the Chinese would like to put up the space station by 2020 and the man on the Moon by 2025.

Ken Pounds, a researcher at Leicester University, UK, thinks this might be a blessing in disguise for the faltering US space program:

Assuming the Chinese are serious, which recent history suggests they are, then I believe the impact could be game-changing. “It is very unlikely the U.S. would not respond. That could breathe new life into their space exploration programme, which is currently going nowhere.

Space exploration is a great idea, but history tells us a grim and different story about two powers trying to outdo one another in that regard. Let us just hope that space remains a peaceful frontier for man, for ever!

NASA’s Leap Into Deep Space: Newly Announced Rocket Really Packs A Punch!

NASA’s new generation rocket will be the biggest and baddest rocket ever built. It is the next generation rocket meant for carrying very heavy loads of cargo into space, thanks to a giant booster. It will eventually carry astronauts into space, but that is still a long way away. It is a first step towards NASA’s endeavor for Deep Space Missions.

This announcement by NASA was made yesterday (14th September, 2011).

The Space Launch System, as conceived of by an artist (Courtesy: NASA)

The Space Launch System

The new rocket is called the Space Launch System (SLS) and it will use liquid hydrogen in liquid oxygen as fuel to get the thrust that it intends to achieve.

The entire SLS program is worth at $18 billion, with the rocket alone costing $10 billion. This works out to $3 billion per year for NASA. The rocket will take some time coming, though. The first test flights are expected in faraway 2017.

SLS will use the still use the solid rocket boosters on either side of the SLS core main rocket. The carrying capacity is slated to be 70 metric tons initially, which will eventually touch 130 metric tons with upgrades. As for the amount of thrust, the SLS will deliver about 20 percent more thrust than the Saturn V rockets, which powered the Apollo missions. It will also be taller, at 403 feet, a clear 40 feet taller than the Saturn rockets.

Future bright, present controversial

This is the first concrete announcement of the future plan of progress for NASA after its 30 year Space Shuttle Program ended a couple of months back. In this time, NASA will be using private built rockets to journey to and from the International Space Station and, maybe, even have manned flights.

As with any big project, the SLS was recently embroiled in controversy after the Wall Street Journal published the news that NASA’s estimates for the SLS was nearly $63 billion! The source of this news was found to be a leaked memo and based on hypotheses, rather than facts. The actual costs are of the tune of $20 billion.

The rockets get bigger and bigger, trying to keep up with human ambitions in space.

International Space Station May Need To Go Unmanned For First Time In A Decade

The International Space Station (ISS) may go unmanned in the coming months for the first time in a decade. This is because of the crash of the Russian space vehicle last week. The vehicle was supposed to carry essential supplies to the International Space Station and the astronauts on it.

While there is no dearth of supplies presently, the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, has decided to delay the launch of the next rocket to the ISS. This does put a constraint on the supplies and the astronauts may be asked to descend to earth in November, deserting the ISS. The ISS will then be controlled from the ground via remote control.

Anybody Home? (The ISS)

Of Delays and Remote Controls

Though this is not new, it is a drastic measure. The last time the ISS was unmanned was in 2001. The procedure is present in NASA’s books, but it is a difficult procedure nonetheless. The ISS can be far effectively monitored on-board than from the ground.

Roskosmos gave a sound reason for their decision to delay this present launch, however. They want to check everything thoroughly, so as to prevent a rerun of last week’s embarrassing disaster. Many have started saying that, if the Space Shuttle were in operation, this kind of crisis would never have arisen. Right now, Russian rockets are the only way to get in or out of the Space Station and they are showing glitches. The Soyuz is, however, on standby at the ISS should an emergency arise.

The present crew of three astronauts was supposed to head back to earth on the 8th of September, but even that has been pushed back to 16th. A fresh batch was set to replace them on the 22nd of September, but this launch has been pushed back to early October. Roskosmos and NASA are now thinking whether this launch will be scheduled at all or not.

Meanwhile, the $100 billion floating behemoth silently endures.

International Space Station to be Plunged Into Ocean by 2020; What After That?

It seems a golden era in space is coming to an end. First, it was the space shuttle program which expired, and now, there is news that the International Space Station will also be pulled down and plunged into the ocean by 2020.


Into a watery grave

Vitaly Davydov, the deputy head of Roskosmos, the Russian Space Agency, said so in no unclear terms and explained the logic behind such a drastic move:

 After it completes its existence, we will be forced to sink the ISS. It cannot be left in orbit, it’s too complex, too heavy an object, it can leave behind lots of rubbish.

The ISS will follow the Mir Space Station into the depths of the Pacific Ocean after its tenure. Mir was sunk in 2001. The ISS will have to be plunged into the ocean, since it loses orbit if left unmanned. It could become a big risk and, thus, needs to be “deorbited”.

The Mir space station, with Atlantis docked against it. (Photo courtesy: NASA)

The ISS, which was launched in 1998, was initially built for 15 years. However, scientists see that it can go on till 2020 and further. It orbits the Earth at an average altitude of 350 kilometers and is a product of collaboration between the US, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada. There are smaller contributions from about hundred or so countries. The International Space Station is the most expensive machine ever designed, with the US alone spending $65 billion on it. The estimated worth is more than $100 billion.

The end of the space shuttle program has left the Russian space vehicle, Soyuz, as the only vehicle to transport man and machine onto the ISS. Russia is intending to replace the Soyuz in the near future with a spacecraft dedicated to ferrying men to and from the space station. Till 2020…

What after the ISS?

The natural question is what after the ISS? Will there be a replacement? By all means, the ISS was a success, but also a pioneering step. Man is now sure of the conditions in space. He is also more aware of the scientific potential of low gravity experiments. However, there might not be political will and money power to finance a replacement.

The ISS was widely seen as a launch pad for manned space flight into deeper space, especially to Mars. That hasn’t happened. However, the ISS has given new avenues in research for medicine, by allowing a unique environment for research – the microgravity environment.

Private Player, SpaceX, Plans To Dock With The International Space Station Later This Year

The future of American contribution in space seems to lie in the hands of private space companies. A private aerospace company, focusing on space flight, Space Exploration (or SpaceX) has been approved by NASA to send its Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station on an unmanned flight, scheduled sometime in late November and attempt a docking with the ISS in early December this year.

NASA has been relying heavily on private space vehicles to take up the mantle of ferrying hardware reliably to the International Space Station from its own space shuttle program. So much so that NASA has even been bottle-feeding them with cash  in order to help them grow. Even manned flight is now in the cards, but not in the near future.


SpaceX will attempt to fly its Dragon Space Capsule past the ISS as its first mission target on November 30th and then attempt a docking with the ISS on the 9th of December this year. SpaceX and NASA are both contemplating a combination of the two missions into one, which will involve a brief fly-by before a docking attempt.

The Dragon Cargo Ship made by SpaceX (Photo: SpaceX)

The four decade old Space Shuttle Program came to an end on the 21st of July this year after Atlantis landed and, since then, NASA has been looking at private players. SpaceX is a leader in this against three more players. As per revealed details of its contract with NASA, SpaceX will charge $1.6 billion for 12 cargo deliveries, making it $133 million per flight. This is tiny compared to the expenditure of more than $1 billion per flight of the space shuttle.

The Bigger Question(s)

If the Dragon cargo ship is delivered properly, using the Falcon rockets (made by SpaceX itself), it will be a dramatic vindication of NASA’s faith in private players in the wake of the end of the space shuttle program. The Falcon rocket parts are already assembled at the Cape Canaveral launch site. The Dragon spacecraft is yet to arrive and is expected in August or September.

The Falcon rocket

The wide space left behind by the end of the space shuttle program leaves room for the super-reliable Soyuz to become the primary player in the space game. Roskosmos, the Russian space agency, realizes as much:

From today, the era of the Soyuz has started in manned space flight, the era of reliability

SpaceX is the not the only player in the game. Following it, but not very close behind, is Orbital Sciences Corp., which also has landed a NASA contract. It is planning its Cygnus’ ship for a February 2012 launch.

Reliability is a key question on everyone’s mind. If that is answered in the positive, there will be inevitable questions on the ethical decision to let private players enter into virgin territory, especially when manned space flight will be involved.