China announced at a press conference with the Shenzhou-9 crew today that lift-off for their nearly two-week mission is scheduled for 6:37 PM Saturday local time, or 6:37 AM EDT. The crew will dock with the Tiangong-1 space module, which has been in orbit since September, and will spend 10 days working in the small module. As expected, joining the two men will be rookie astronaut Liu Yang, China's first female space flyer. Air Force Major Liu enlisted in the People's Liberation Army in 1997, and was chosen as an astronaut in the second batch of recruits in May 2010.
One of the two male astronauts will remain in the Shenzhou-9 capsule during the mission, in case of emergency, and Liu and the third crew member will spend a planned 10 days carrying out experiments in Tiangong-1. The proto-type station module successfully docked twice automatically with the unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft last November. During this up-coming mission, the docking will be done manually by the crew, with the automatic docking capability available as a back-up. Demonstrating the manual docking of spacecraft in orbit is a necessary prerequisite to enable the construction of large space stations, and, later, multi-craft missions to the Moon and beyond.
Although this is only the fourth Chinese manned orbital mission since 2003, each has been carefully crafted to increase the capabilities of the crew members and the equipment. Next year, Shenzhou-10 will dock with Tiangong-1, perhaps for a longer stay in orbit, and China is readying a more capable and enhanced Tiangong-2 prototype station module, with the plan for a larger station complex to be completed by 2020.