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China's space mission a test of docking precision

Liu Yang becomes the first Chinese female astronaut to go to space while traveling on the Shenzhou 9 capsule. NBC's Ed Flanagan reports.

BEIJING -- China's first woman in space, Liu Yang, will be conducting space medical experiments on a 10-day mission that started Saturday, but experts are deeply interested in the mechanics of the mission -- namely the manual space docking the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft will attempt with the Tiangong-1 module.

Launched last September, the Tiangong-1 is China’s first space laboratory module and a key cog in Beijing’s larger ambitions of establishing a space station by 2020. From this outpost, Chinese scientists over the next few years will be able to test out new equipment and experiment with future space station capabilities. 

But first Chinese astronauts need to prove they can actually dock with it. 

Last year, China successfully got its unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft to remotely link up with the Tiangong-1 module, but this will be the first time Chinese astronauts will attempt to manually guide a spacecraft into docking. 

"Some people describe the manual docking as threading a needle from 100 meters away, so you can see how difficult and precise the procedure would be” said astronaut Jing Haipeng, who with 14 years of experience in China’s space program, will be responsible for this critical aspect of the mission. 

"The manual space rendezvous ... is a huge test for astronauts' ability to judge spatial position, eye-hand coordination and psychological abilities," he added. 

According to NBC News space analyst, James Oberg, the sooner China’s astronauts master how to linkup with the Tiangong-1, the faster the country will be able to realize its long-term vision. 

“The Tiangong-1 is not just a docking target ... this is a full-fledged, live support module that can also can be used as a living space if the Chinese decide to move beyond low-Earth out to the moon or deep space” said Oberg. “The Tiangong-1 is exactly the kind of module for long term, deep space missions.” 

China’s space rise a cause for concern?
According to Oberg, China’s rapid development in space capability is quickly bringing the nation to the same level as the other major space powers. 

“What the Chinese are doing is not just going on a tail chase of ancient space race accomplishments,” says Oberg, “They are bringing themselves right up to and in some cases maybe even taking a step ahead of some of the other space powers.” 

“It’s a very, very impressive program on a very broad front,” he adds.

There have been some questions, though, about whether China’s space program is going too fast. An annual U.S. Department of Defense report on China’s military and security developments released in May theorized that China’s space program might be encountering challenges in system reliability, pointing to an August 2011 malfunctioning of a Long March 2C rocket. 

China is currently in the process of several large scale improvements in its space capabilities. The design of the much larger Long March 5 booster and the construction of a new rocket launch site on Hainan Island are just two examples that will push China’s technological expertise. 

Report: First Chinese female astronaut joins space club

Increased reliability and confidence in China’s space capabilities will be critical for another important Chinese aspiration: increased commercial opportunities. European and American satellite builders have traditionally corned the market on satellite construction and launching. A U.S. ban on the use of American components in satellites launched by China have effectively kept China out of the competition for satellite construction bids. 

The success of Chinese designed, constructed and launched satellites could position China to be a major player in the industry. 

“When the Chinese get credibility for their technology that space successes give them, they elbow their way to the top rank,” says Oberg, “the slice of the U.S. pie will shrink when the Chinese start getting a bigger slice.”

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