According to state media reports and the country’s human spaceflight agency China will
launch its manned spacecraft mission to an orbiting space laboratory in mid-June. A Long March 2F rocket will launch three astronauts aboard a Shenzhou 9 capsule for China’s first manned space docking at the mini-space station Tiangong-1. The space lab module has been circling Earth unmanned since its launch last year. China’s Shenzhou 9 mission will mark the fourth human spaceflight for the country, which has been making steady advances since the launch of Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei in 2003 on Shenzhou 5, the country’s first manned spacecraft. China is the third country to achieve human spaceflight after Russia and the United States. Since its first flight of manned spacecraft, China has launched two more manned missions, the two-man Shenzhou 6 flight and three-person Shenzhou 7 mission. Last September, China launched the Tiangong 1 module, a prototype for a future space station, into orbit. That launch was followed in November by the unmanned Shenzhou 8 mission, which successfully docked a capsule with the space laboratory twice during the test flight. The Shenzhou 9 mission will mark China’s first human spaceflight to an orbiting module and it is first manned spacecraft lunched from China. Earlier this year, space program officials said the mission could also mark the first launch of China’s first female astronaut, but a final decision on that is pending, Xinhua reported. China’s Shenzhou (or “Divine Vessel”) spacecraft are three-module space capsules with a design originally based on Russia’s Soyuz space capsules, but the Chinese vehicles carry substantial modifications. Like the Soyuz, Shenzhou vehicles carry up to three astronauts and consist of a propulsion module, a crew capsule and an orbital module. But unlike Russia’s Soyuz, the orbital module of Shenzhou manned spacecraft carries its own solar arrays and can remain in space after its crew returns to Earth in the crew capsule.