China will launch its Shenzhou IX manned spacecraft in mid-June, with the first launch window being scheduled for the afternoon of June 16. This will be China’s first manned space docking mission with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space lab module, according to a spokesperson with China’s manned space program.
By Saturday, the spacecraft and its carrier rocket, the Long March-2F, had been moved to the launch platform at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. The final preparations are underway, while three astronauts and their substitutes have already arrived at the Jiuquan center.
Of the three astronauts selected for the mission, one will be a woman, the first time ever that China will send a woman astronaut into space.
Chinese state media identifies the two women candidates for the mission as Liu Yang and Wang Yaping. Both women were born in 1978, and are former fighter jet pilots.
The launch will be China’s fourth manned spaceflight. Three previous launches between 2003 and 2008 sent six astronauts into space, several of whom have become celebrated national heroes upon their successful return to Earth.
China has said in the past that its eventual goals are to have a space station and to put an astronaut on the moon. It has made steady progress over the past decade, and its latest five-year plan ending 2016 includes launching space laboratories and making technological preparations for the construction of space stations.
For China, its space program is seen both as a symbol of national prestige and a source of lucrative business deals. China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC), the sole commercial entity authorized by the Chinese government to provide commercial satellite launch services, has been working with the international aerospace industry since the early 1980s.
For the year 2011, CGWIC conducted 19 launches in total, compared to 15 for 2010. On March 31, CGWIC helped APT Satellite Holdings of Hong Kong launch Apstar 7, built by Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy and carrying 28 C-band and 28 Ku-band transponders, for $68 million.
It is clear that China has great ambition for its space program, and the Chinese government has maintained its objectives of space cooperation with other countries in the international community.
Some elements of China’s program, notably the firing of a ground-based missile into one of its dead satellites several years ago, have alarmed American officials who say such moves could set off a race to militarize space. So far, the U.S. has been reluctant to cooperate with China in space due to its space program’s close relationship with the military, despite China’s insistence that its program is purely for peaceful purposes.
What remains to be seen is whether China will succeed in its effort to become a true space power on par with the likes of the United States and Russia, and whether these countries can maintain a peaceful co-existence for the benefit of humanity.