Shenzhou-9: Up, Up and Away
   2012-06-15 17:17:45      Web Editor: dingxiaoxiao

By Stuart Wiggin

This weekend will see the scheduled launch date for the manned Shenzhou-9 spacecraft. Shenzhou-9 is expected to perform the first manned docking mission with the Tiangong-1 space lab module which was launched last year. The mission is a historic first not only because it will mark the first manned docking mission carried out by Chinese astronauts, it will also be the first mission in which a member of the crew is female. Meanwhile, the mission also fulfils the strategic and security requirements of the country's space plan and provides the government with yet another national accomplishment.

In the past several years, China has established itself as one of the worlds leading space powers. In addition to the strategic and security aspects of the Chinese space program, a white paper published by the government in December 2011, entitled China's Space Activities in 2011 pointed out the economic logic behind China's space program. The report states, "China relies primarily on its own capabilities to develop its space industry to meet the needs of modernization, based upon its actual conditions and strength." The launching of the Tiangong-1 space module and the Shenzhou-8 and Shenzhou-9 crafts ties in with the much wider goals of industrial development and enhancing innovative capabilities. According to the white paper report, "Chinas strategy for the development of its space industry is to enhance its capabilities of independent innovation, consolidate its industrial foundation, and improve its innovation system."

Clearly, the economic aspect of China's space program is part of the nation's broader development plan. Aside from economic, strategic and security aspects, there is also a very clear social aspect to the program which has become even more apparent with this latest mission. Previously, of the Tiangong-1 launch, I stated as part of an article for China Internet Information Centre, that amid reports of an economic slowdown alongside prickly domestic issues, the Chinese space program provided the perfect method by which to reignite the nationalist, patriotic spirit of the people in order to ensure that development in China remains peaceful both socially and politically.

The social element to the Shenzhou-9 launch lies not only in the fact that this mission marks the first manned docking mission for China; Shenzhou-9 also represents a remarkable achievement for women in a country where much is still being done to address gender discrimination. Two female candidates, profiled recently by the People's Daily, are vying to be part of Shenzhou-9's three-man crew. Major Liu Yang, a pilot within the People's Liberation Army, will become China's first female astronaut. However, the very inclusion of females within the crew will boost the level of interest within the mission and the level public support for the government sponsored program.

Including female astronauts within a space program is a very deliberate decision, regardless of the country involved. It promotes social equality and also prevents a gender exclusion issue from arising. China has been quick to address the issue of gender exclusion by involving female astronauts so early within their space activities; only nine years after sending their first crewed mission into space in 2003. This provides a stark contrast with NASA, which did not send their first female astronaut, Sally Kristen Ride, into space until 1983.

China will become only the third nation to complete a manned docking mission, behind Russia and the United States. As a result, China's position within an already very exclusive club will be solidified; providing a certain amount of pride and prestige to the nation as whole. The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft is set to rendezvous and dock with the space lab module Tiangong-1, which was designed as a testing platform for docking missions such as this. Two of Shenzhou-9's crew members will board the space laboratory while one remaining member will stay aboard Shenzhou-9 in case of emergency. The space missions involving Tiangong-1 act as a precursor to the creation of a fully functioning space station scheduled to be completed around 2020.

Tiangong-1 will be de-orbited in 2013 following the Shenzhou-9 mission and another manned mission. The Shenzhou-9 mission is a PR dream for the Chinese government. If successful, not only will it be an amazing feat of scientific development, it will also be a landmark for the development of women within Chinese society. The decision to send a Chinese woman into space is in keeping with China's goal for promoting human civilization and social progress as outlined within its government white paper. And even after the Shenzhou-9 mission is complete, there will be much for Chinese people to feel proud of in the coming years according to the white paper, which states that by 2016, China will launch orbiters intended for lunar landings. Ultimately, the Shenzhou-9 mission is just one of the government's many steps towards achieving scientific development, encouraging social progress and promoting national pride.

These views do not reflect the views of CRI.


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