Tiangong 1 Lifted Off Today at 9:16am EDT

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China’s first experimental space laboratory was successfully lifted into orbit from the spaceport in Jiuquan at 9:16am EDT this morning. The lab will circle the earth at altitudes between 300-350 kilometers for the next two years. During that time China will send three Shenzhou spacecraft to dock with Tiangong 1. Shenzhou 8 is scheduled to be launched in early November. It will not carry Chinese astronauts but will dock with the space lab autonomously. Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10 are scheduled to be launched on as yet unspecified dates during 2012. After Shenzhou 10 leaves the space lab, China’s mission managers announced they will move Tiangong 1 into a higher orbit to conduct unspecified space experiments until it runs out of fuel. Shortly before that happens Chinese mission controllers will perform a de-orbiting maneuver designed to bring Tiangong 1 back to earth, hopefully in a pre-determined splashdown zone in “uninhabited” waters in the Pacific Ocean.

Senior officials leading China’s human space flight program held a press conference on September 28 to brief reporters on the Tiangong 1 mission and to answer questions about China’s longer term intentions. In response to a reporter’s question, Spokesperson Wu Ping confirmed that China currently has no plans to send humans to the moon. A human lunar mission has not been included in Chinese government planning, and there is no specific timetable. However, Wu also said it was only a matter of time before Chinese land humans on the moon. She confirmed earlier reports that a group of experts had been formed to conduct a feasibility study.

In a separate press conference a spokesperson for China’s People’s Liberation Army defended the Chinese military’s participation in the human space flight program, stating it was a common practice in the history of many other national space programs. He added that the space enterprise was a large, complex and high-risk endeavor that China’s military was best-suited to coordinate.

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About the author: Gregory has lived and worked in China for the better part of the last twenty-five years facilitating exchanges between academic, governmental, and professional organizations in both countries. Since joining the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2002, he has focused on promoting and conducting dialog between Chinese and American experts on nuclear arms control and space security. His areas of expertise are Chinese foreign and security policy, Chinese space program, international arms control, cross-cultural communication. He received his Ph.D. in Political Theory from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1994. Gregory also blogs on the Equation.

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