When China sent up the first building block of its space station in September, it was always the case that the second module wouldn’t be far behind. Shenzhou-8 will get blasted off on Tuesday to join–if all goes well–the unmanned space laboratory, Tiangong-1, already in orbit. (Update: the launch was successful; docking is planned for no later than Thursday. Done. Check). Shenzhous -9 and -10 are to follow next year. The drawing above is a representation of what the space station will look like once it is fully assembled. The part closest to the bottom left looks like a Shenzhou module.
Chinese space launches are now routine, but docking in space is new for its space program, and a critical skill to master as it races to catch-up with the other space powers. The U.S., for example, first docked spacecraft in 1966. It will take a decade for the space station to be built out fully and astronauts are likely to be aboard from next year. But none of that will be possible without successful docking in space. This docking is running six months behind its original schedule, but China’s space engineers, who will be orchestrating the docking from the ground, know how important it is to get this essential step right–so essential that they will perform the operation twice on this mission, docking, then undocking and docking again.
State media is again giving the docking great fanfare.