China accomplishes first manned space docking

Beijing: Three Chinese astronauts including the country`s first spacewoman today successfully coupled their spaceship with an orbiting module and later entered it creating history amid cheers from ground staff, in a live telecast show. The move is yet another milestone in the Chinese space programme.

After the automatic docking, coordinated mostly from ground, the three astronauts on board Shenzhou-9 (Divine Grace) entered the orbiting space lab Tiangong-1 or `Heavenly Palace`, an experimental space lab put into orbit last year. The experiment was part of China`s efforts to establish a space lab on the lines of Russia`s International Space Station, Mir, currently in orbit since 2001.

For the three Chinese astronauts, the procedure began today as Shenzhou-9, in which they traveled to space two days ago, first moved to a location 52 km from Tiangong-1 at noon today, the Beijing Aerospace Control Center said. The spacecraft then slowly drifted towards Tiangong-1, which is orbiting on its own since last year and completed the docking in less than eight minutes, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

During the process of automated docking, the astronauts namely Jing Haipeng, Liu Wang and China`s first woman astronaut Liu Yang were calm and in good condition, reporting the status of Shenzhou-9 to the ground frequently, the Center said. They are the first tenants in the 15-cubic-meter cabin of Tiangong-1, an official said. The 8.5-tonne space lab module has been traveling around Earth for 263 days since it was launched in September 2011.

"The real test will be the manual docking attempt six days later," Zhou Jianping, chief engineer of China`s manned space program said. "A manual docking, if successful, will demonstrate the country`s grasp of essential space rendezvous and docking know-how. "It will mean China is fully capable of transferring human and cargo to an orbiter in space," Zhou said.

A manual docking is considered as a major step forward in China`s manned space programme to build a space station around 2020, in time for the likely retirement of the International Space Station. As soon as they later entered the Tiangong-1 lab they began assembling the new equipment they brought along with them to conduct experiments. They are scheduled to stay in space for about 13 days.

State television had shown the docking as well as entry of the astronauts into the module in a nationwide live telecast. The ground staff cheered the astronauts as they entered the module one by one. The biggest cheers were reserved for Liu Yang, the woman airforce pilot who initially fumbled as she floated struggling to get a firm footing. The three later got together and waved to the earth station.

China`s first successful unmanned space docking was completed last year with the docking of the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft and the Tiangong-1. The latest Shenzhou mission assumed significance as it launched 33-year-old Liu Yang, the first Chinese woman to travel to space. She flew along with Commander Jing Haipeng, 46, and fellow flight engineer, Liu Wang, 42.