China launches fifth manned space mission, set to be its longest ever

A Chinese rocket carrying three taikonauts lifted off Tuesday to begin a 15-day mission. The mission is China's next step toward building a space station.

China Daily/Reuters
The Long March 2-F rocket loaded with the Shenzhou 10 manned spacecraft carrying three Chinese astronauts lifts off from the launch pad in the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu Province Tuesday.

Three Chinese taikonauts lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu Province for a 15-day mission that will take them to China's experimental lab module Tiangong 1, which orbits some 210 miles above Earth.

The mission is the longest yet for the Chinese human spaceflight program and the first truly operational – and final – mission for Tiangong 1. The crew will test new docking maneuvers as they arrive, then perform experiments and hold a live lecture from space for students in China.

The launch, which took place at 5:38 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, went flawlessly, with the crew reaching orbit about nine minutes later. If all goes well, the crew aboard the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft should reach the lab module on Thursday.

Shenzhou 10 represents China's fifth human-spaceflight mission in 10 years – a more methodical pace than the US and the former Soviet Union pursued during the Cold War.

During the past decade, China has sent 10 different taikonauts into space, including two women. Each mission has represented a progressive step over the previous one – first, with a John Glenn-like orbital mission that lasted nearly 21 hours and 23 minutes in 2003. Two years later, two taikonauts spent 5 days on orbit. In 2008, China launched its first three-person crew for a three-day mission that included the program's first spacewalk. Last year, Shenzhou 9 carried three crew members on a 13-day mission to Tiangong 1.

The program's near-term goal is to orbit a space station comparable to Russia's Mir space station, which over 10 years grew from a single module into a seven-module station. The Russians abandoned and deorbited Mir in 2001 in favor of its participation in the International Space Station project.

Tiangong 1 is the first step toward China's space-station goal. China's human-spaceflight plans call for launching a second, larger module later this year. Dubbed Tiangong 2, it is designed to host a crew of three for up to 20 days and has a second docking port to accept resupply missions. Tiangong 3 is slated for launch in 2015 as the core for the new station. A modified Tiangong 1 is expected to serve as an unmanned cargo carrier to support an eventual space station.

The launch comes as the US has embarked on yet another study aimed at recommending future directions for NASA's human spaceflight program. Last August, at the behest of Congress, the National Academies' Human Spaceflight Committee began holding a series of meetings to gather ideas from the public, aerospace specialists, and other stakeholders. The panel expects to present its final report next May.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.