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June Good Month for "First" Women Astronauts

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Jun-2012 (Updated: 18-Jun-2012 01:04 PM)

Purely by coincidence, the first women to fly into space representing their countries -- the Soviet Union, United States and China -- were all launched in June.

Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space on June 16, 1963.  Her solo flight on Vostok 6 lasted 70 hours and 50 minutes. 

U.S. astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space on June 18, 1983.  She was part of the five-person STS-7 space shuttle Challenger crew.  The mission lasted 146 hours and 24 minutes.

Chinese astronaut Liu Yang became the first Chinese women in space on June 16, 2012.  Liu's mission, still in progress, is expected to last 13 days.  She is one of the three-person Shenzhou-9 crew that today performed the first crewed docking with China's first space station, Tiangong-1. 

Women of other nationalities have also flown in space, but Tereshkova, Ride and Liu are notable because they flew on spacecraft built and launched by their own countries.  The other "first" women astronauts flew on Soviet/Russian or U.S. spacecraft -- and not in June!   For the record, they were:

  • Helen Sharman, first British woman in space and first woman "space tourist" (Soviet Soyuz TM12/TM22, launched May 19, 1991)
  • Roberta Bondar, first Canadian woman in space (U.S. space shuttle STS-42, launched Jan. 22, 1992)
  • Chiaki Mukai, first Japanese woman in space (U.S. space shuttle STS-65, launched July 8, 1994)
  • Claudie Haignere, first French woman in space (Russian Soyuz TM-24/TM-23, launched August 17, 1996)
  • Yi So-Yeon, first South Korean woman in space (Russian Soyuz TMA-12 mission, launched April 8, 2008)

Some might also include Kalpana Chawla, an Indian-American NASA astronaut as the first Indian woman in space (1997), or Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian-American space tourist as the first Iranian woman in space (2006), but since they both were American citizens when they made their spaceflights, we do not include them here.  Some lists identify Ansari as the first woman space tourist, but Sharman earned that distinction 15 years earlier.

Other notable women space firsts:

  • Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya, first woman to walk in space (1984)
  • U.S. astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, first American woman to walk in space (1984)
  • U.S. astronaut Eileen Collins, first woman to command a space shuttle mission (1999)
  • U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson, first woman to command the International Space Station (2008)

On a sad note, the first women to die as a result of a spaceflight were NASA astronaut Judy Resnik and "teacher-in-space" Christa McAuliffe, both of whom died in the January 28, 1986 space shuttle Challenger tragedy.  Two more women astronauts died in the February 1, 2003 space shuttle Columbia tragedy, Kalpana Chawla, mentioned above, and Laurel Clark. 



China's Shenzhou-9 Docks with Tiangong-1

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Jun-2012 (Updated: 18-Jun-2012 10:07 AM)

China's Shenzhou-9 spacecraft with its three-person crew successfully docked with the Tiangong-1 space station this morning (Eastern Daylight Time).

Docking took place at 2:09 pm Beijing time (2:09 am EDT) and the crew soon moved into the 8.6 metric ton Tiangong-1 module. Video of crew entering the Tiangong-1 module was shown on China's English-language CCTV.

Shenzhou-9 was launched on Saturday, June 16, with the main goal of conducting the first crewed docking with a space station.  The Tiangong-1 module was launched last September and docking operations were conducted in November with an automated Shenzhou-8 in November, but this is the first time people have docked with the space station.

This was an automated docking, but on June 24 the crew will undock and then perform a manual redocking as a test.   The total mission is scheduled to last 13 days, with 5 of those days docked with Tiangong-1.  In addition to demonstrating rendezvous and docking techniques, the crew will conduct a series of biological experiments.

The crew is commanded by Jing Haipeng.   Liu Wang will perform the manual docking.   Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut, is in charge of the scientific experiments.


Events of Interest: Week of June 18-22, 2012

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jun-2012 (Updated: 17-Jun-2012 04:17 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the week ahead.   The House and Senate both are in session this week.

During the Week

On the international front, China's Shenzhou-9 space station mission undoubtedly will be one focus of attention in the space community.  The three-person crew, including China's first woman astronaut, was launched on Saturday morning (Eastern Daylight Time) and will dock with China's Tiangong-1 space station module on Monday.   This will be the first Chinese crew to dock with a space station.  That first docking will be automated, a task demonstrated last year by Shenzhou-8, which did not have a crew.   Later in the mission, the Shenzhou-9 crew will undock and then one of the crew members, Liu Wang, will perform a manual re-docking to show it can be done.   Liu Wang should not be confused with his crew-mate, Liu Yang, who is China's first woman in space.   The mission's commander is Jing Haipeng. The mission is expected to last a total of 13 days.  We've put together a handy list of all the Chinese missions that have carried crews -- this is the fourth.

Here in the Washington, commercial space activities have center stage.   The head of NASA, Charlie Bolden, and the acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Michael Huerta, will hold a media teleconference on Monday to talk about commercial space.  It is rather unusual for the head of the FAA to have such a public role in space issues.  The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) facilitates and regulates commercial launches and reentries and is a significant player on the space policy scene, but it is a comparatively small part of the FAA's portfolio.  On Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee will markup the bill that funds the FAA (Transportation-HUD).  On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on commercial space where NASA and FAA representatives will testify, but not Bolden or Huerta.  Or, for that matter, George Nield, the head of AST.  Instead, Pam Melroy, a former NASA astronaut who serves as a "senior technical advisor" to Nield, is the FAA's witness.  (Another former astronaut, Michael Lopez-Alegria, also will testify.  He's now head of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.)  Huerta is probably saving himself for his confirmation hearing to become the official FAA administrator instead of acting.  That hearing will be held Thursday by the same committee.  Huerta has been acting FAA administrator since Randy Babbitt had to resign in December after being pulled over by police for driving under the influence.  A judge dismissed those charges last month, but Babbitt told the Associated Press he had no regrets about resigning.

Monday, June 18

Tuesday, June 19

Wednesday, June 20

Thursday, June 21



China's Shenzhou-9 Prepares for Docking with Tiangong-1 on Monday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jun-2012 (Updated: 17-Jun-2012 03:13 PM)

China's Shenzhou-9 spacecraft is conducting a series of three orbit changes as it prepares to dock with the Tiangong-1 space station on Monday.   The three-person Chinese crew includes China's first woman astronaut, Liu Yang.

Chinese astronauts are often referred to in the west as taikonauts, but China's own English-language coverage uses the word astronaut.

Shenzhou-9 was successfully launched at 6:37 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) yesterday.  The spacecraft is in the process of catching up with the orbit of Tiangong-1, China's first space station that was launched last September.   The automated Shenzhou-8 spacecraft rendezvoused and docked with Tiangong-1 in November, but this will be the first docking with a crew. 

The Chinese media have not been precise about when the docking will occur on Monday.  A CCTV report yesterday mentioned it would take place about 15:00 Beijing time, which would be 07:00 GMT or 3:00 am EDT.   Bob Christy at estimates that it will take place at 06:10 GMT (2:10 am EDT).  However, Dragon-in-space, an unaffiliated website devoted to the Chinese space program, states the docking will take place "about 57 hours after launch."   Since launch was at 06:37 EDT, that would make the docking much later in the day -- about 3:37 pm EDT.

The three crew are Jing Haipeng, commander; Liu Wang, who will conduct the manual docking; and Liu Yang, the woman astronaut who is in charge of a range of biological experiments.   

Chinese news accounts focus on the manual docking that Liu Wang will conduct, but a CCTV report yesterday revealed that the first docking will be automated.   After the crew has a few days to acclimate to weightlessness. Shenzhou-9 will undock and at that time Liu Wang will perform a manual re-docking.

CCTV is Chinese television that broadcasts in English. It's website has several text stories as well as videos narrated in English about the Shenzhou spacecraft and this mission.

The Shenzhou-9 mission is scheduled to last 13 days.

Air Force Releases Video of X-37B OTV-2 Landing Yesterday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jun-2012 (Updated: 17-Jun-2012 11:48 AM)

The Air Force has released a short video showing the landing of the X-37B spaceplane yesterday at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

It looks just like a space shuttle landing -- but no one is aboard!   And the X-37B is much smaller, of course.  But the automated spaceplane lands effortlessly after 469 days in space.

One Up, One Down -- X-37B Lands at Vandenberg

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Jun-2012 (Updated: 16-Jun-2012 12:14 PM)

While most of the space world's attention was focused on China and its successful launch of the Shenzhou-9 mission early this morning (Eastern Daylight Time), another interesting event was taking place at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.   The Air Force's X-37B automated space plane returned home after 469 days in orbit.

The reusable space vehicle landed at 5:48 am Pacfic Daylight Time (8:48 am EDT).  It was launched on March 5, 2011 atop an Atlas V rocket. 

The X-37B's mission is highly classified.  What it's been doing for the past 15 months is not known publicly.   A press release from Vandenberg today says only that it "performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies."  

At least two X-37B Orbital Test Vehicles (OTVs) have been built.  The first, OTV-1, flew a successful 224-day mission in 2010.   The vehicle that landed today is OTV-2.   The Air Force announced today that OTV-1 will be launched again "sometime in Fall 2012."

Photo of X-37B OTV-1.  Photo Credit:  Boeing (via

The vehicle resembles a small space shuttle and the program was actually inherited by the Department of Defense from NASA.   It originally was designed by NASA as a test vehicle as part of its Orbital Space Plane (OSP) program.   OSP was going to be a crew return vehicle ("lifeboat") for the International Space Station, and eventually a two-way transportation system.   NASA cancelled the program in 2004, however, after President George W. Bush announced plans to focus NASA's human spaceflight program on a return to the Moon instead of extended operations of the ISS.   The X-37B does not carry people.


China Space Station Crew Successful Launch at 6:37 am ET Today - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Jun-2012 (Updated: 16-Jun-2012 06:56 AM)

UPDATE:  The launch went off without a hitch at 6:37 am EDT. Shenzhou-9 is now in orbit.  The crew is scheduled to dock with Tiangong-1 on Monday.

ORIGINAL STORY: Countdown continues for launch of Shenzhou-9 at 6:37 am Eastern Daylight time (10:37 GMT, 18:37 Beijing time) this morning, June 16, 2012.   This is the first Chinese crew to go to a space station and the first to include a woman astronaut, Liu Yang. Live launch coverage is on China's English-language website CCTV.    Or follow us on Twitter: @SpcPlcyOnline.

The crew's mission is to rendezvous and dock with the Tiangong-1 space station, which was launched in September 2011.  The mission is scheduled to last 10-12 days.

This is China's fourth crewed spaceflight.  Five other Shenzhou missions (Shenzhou 1-4, Shenzhou-8) were automated tests.

Background Information on China's Human Spaceflight Program

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Jun-2012 (Updated: 11-Jun-2013 09:01 AM)

China's human spaceflight program, Project 921, officially began in 1992.   The scheduled launch tomorrow of Shenzhou-9 is the ninth flight in the series, but only the fourth to carry a crew.

Shenzhou 1-4 were automated tests of the spacecraft; Shenzhou-8 was an automated test of rendezvous and docking procedures with the Tiangong-1 space station, which also was unoccupied.  The following table provides information on the three crewed missions flown to date and tomorrow's mission.


 Mission  Launch Date  Crew Comments
 Shenzhou-5  Oct. 15, 2003 Yang Liwei First Chinese human spaceflight mission;
21 hours, 23 min
 Shenzhou-6  Oct. 12, 2005 Fei Junlong
Nie Haisheng
First Chinese 2-person crew;
5 day mission
 Shenzhou-7  Sept. 25, 2008 Zhai Zhigang
Liu Boming
Jing Haipeng

First Chinese 3-person crew;
First Chinese spacewalk (by Zhai for 22 min, Liu
also did stand-up EVA in airlock for about 2 min)
3 day mission;
small (40 kg) subsatellite ejected


 July 16, 2012

Jing Haipeng
Liu Wang
Liu Yang

Scheduled: 10 day mission;
manual docking with Tiangong-1 space station;
Liu Yang first Chinese woman astronaut


The Tiangong-1 space station was launched in September 2011.


NASA Downplays Threat of Asteroid 2011 AG5 Impact in 2040

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Jun-2012 (Updated: 15-Jun-2012 04:30 PM)

NASA released a workshop report today that downplays the risk to Earth of Asteroid 2011 AG5, saying that it "will fly safely past and not impact Earth in 2040."   Asteroid 2011 AG5 is one of a subset of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) classified as Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs).

The agency acknowledges, however, that more observations are needed in the years ahead to be doubly sure that analysis is correct.  A key event will occur -- or not -- in February 2023 when the asteroid is 1.1 million miles from Earth.   If it passes through a very small "keyhole" in space at that time, Earth's gravity could be just enough to modify its trajectory such that an impact with Earth might be possible on February 5, 2040. 

The keyhole is 227 miles wide.   Lindley Johnson, program executive for NASA's Near Earth Object (NEO) observation program, said: "Given our current understanding of this asteroid's orbit, there is only a very remote chance of this keyhole passage even occurring."

Today's press release provides a link to a JPL website where four related documents are posted, including a "consensus summary" of the May 29, 2012 workshop.   The links to the four documents are a little hard to find so are provided here:

The one page consensus summary of the workshop does not list the participants.  Shown as bullet-points, it states that there is only a 0.2 percent chance of the asteroid passing through the keyhole in 2023, and also only a 0.2 percent change of it impacting Earth in 2040.

The 140-meter diameter asteroid was discovered in January 2011 and is currently located in the daytime sky and cannot be observed with Earth-based telescopes.  Observations can be made in the fall of 2013 and again in 2015-2020.  Data from those observations will allow scientists to better predict its path.

Should the unlikely occur and it turns out the asteroid is on a collision course with Earth after all, the workshop concluded that "numerous viable deflection mission options are available."   For example, "an impactor spacecraft could be an effective means."  If that approach is chosen, "[i]t is desirable to also have a rendezvous spacecraft on station at the asteroid at least a few months" in advance and it could be "equipped with a gravity tractor" as a backup.

China Announces Launch Time, Crew, for Tomorrow's Space Station Mission

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Jun-2012 (Updated: 15-Jun-2012 09:11 AM)

China today announced the liftoff time for the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft launch tomorrow, June 16, 2012.  Shenzhou-9 will carry the first Chinese space station crew to the Tiangong-1 space station, already in orbit. The crew includes the first Chinese woman astronaut.

The launch will take place at 18:37 Beijing time, which is 10:37 GMT or 6:37 am Eastern Daylight Time.  The crew is Jing Haipeng, Liu Wang and Liu Yang.   Liu Yang is the first Chinese woman to be launched into space.

The crew was introduced to the public at a Chinese press conference.  The video is on CCTV.  It is in Chinese with simultaneous translation into English. 

Jing is the commander of the mission.   He flew on the Shenzhou 7 mission in 2007.  Liu Wang, 42, will be in charge of the manual docking.  Liu Yang, born in 1978, will be in charge of medical experiments.

Events of Interest


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