March 4, 2010

China Postpones Space Station Program

State media said Wednesday that China has postponed the next step in its ambitious space station program until 2011 for technical issues.

Xinhua news agency cited rocket designer Qi Faren as saying that China had originally planned to place the Tiangong-1 space module in orbit later this year, and undertake experimental docking maneuvers in subsequent missions.

However, Qi said that the initial launch has now been delayed by a year due to "technical reasons."

Qi made this statement on the sidelines of a meeting of a legislative advisory body two days before the start of the annual session of China's rubber-stamp parliament.

China was the third nation to put a man in space when Yang Liwei piloted the one-man Shenzhou-5 space mission in 2003.

The Shenzhou-7 piloted three "taikonauts," of astronauts, in September 2008.  This mission carried out China's first space walk.

The Tiangong-1 is seen as the building block for China's maiden space station.

This 8.5-ton module would provide a "safe room" for Chinese astronauts to live in and conduct research in zero gravity.

The Tiangong-1 will dock with the unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft in the country's first space docking, which is a feat that will be controlled remotely from the ground.

Qi said Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 would also dock with the orbiting module in successive years. 

He said other key technologies are being worked out in the space station program, including the replenishment of propellant, air, water and food for the space module as well as a life support system.

The International Space Station began in 1998 with a Russian-built module.  The first full-time crew arrived two years later.