China made space history this week, as three Chinese astronauts returned to Earth after a 13-day mission that made their nation the third to dock on manned spacecraft to another in orbit. The Shenzhou 9 space capsule landed about 12 hours ago in Inner Mongolia, one day after the astronauts departed the Tiangong 1 prototype space lab module. Space reporter Miles O'Brien spoke to Leroy Chiao, a NASA astronaut of Chinese descent, about the significance of this event.
If you are not impressed with the Chinese space program, you are not paying attention. The just-completed Shenzhou-9 mission to the Tiangong-1 "stationlet" appears to be a stunning success.
The three person crew (including China's first woman taikonaut, Liu Yang) spent slightly less than two weeks in space.
They at Tiangong-1 on autopilot, conducted a series of unspecified experiments and then, most important, successfully docked Shenzhou-9 with Tiangong-1 manually – proving they can perform this crucial task in case "George" fails someday (as mine tends to on short final in the clouds).
My good friend Leroy Chiao and I had hoped to be there for the launch and landing of this mission. But after years of negotiating with the Chinese for some real access to their space program, our proposal was flat-out rejected – amid the controversy over that blind activist Chen Guangcheng.
Leroy logged four space missions – three on the shuttle and one on the Russian Soyuz – which took him to and from the International Space Station – where he spent about 190 days as Commander of Expedition 10.
Leroy is not the first person of Chinese descent to fly in space – that distinction belongs to Taylor Gun-Jin Wang – a JPL scientist with roots in Taiwan who flew as a payload specialist on STS-51B (Challenger) in May of 1985. And of course, the seven time shuttle flyer Franklin Chang-Diaz had a father of Chinese descent.
But in China, Leroy is considered The Dude. His parents emigrated to the US from Shandong, China (via Taiwan) after World War II. Over the years, Leroy has spent a lot of time getting to know the players and the hardware inside the Chinese space program.