The Chinese launched a three-man (well, two men and one woman) crew on Saturday, and they rendezvoused with the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 yesterday. It’s worth noting that the launch of the first Chinese woman taikonaut, Liu Yang was exactly 49 years after the launch of the first-ever woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova.
I was trying to think of how to write about this without really sounding like sour grapes (sorry, still grumpy), when this passage in Jonathan’s Space Report caught my eye.
Tiangong-1 is smaller than the early Salyuts, and has caused some pedantic discussion about the definition of a space station (regular readers will appreciate that pedantic is not a derogatory term in my book :-)); In the spirit of my friends the Pluto-killers, I will count TG-1 as a ‘dwarf space station’.
Well, the International Space Station is pretty dang big; it took 32 missions to assemble. But how much bigger is it? I found that the pressurized volume for ISS is 29,600 cubic feet. How much smaller is Tiangong-1? It’s 530 cubic feet of habitable volume. TG-1 is smaller in diameter and only slightly longer than the Long Duration Exposure Facility, so it probably could fit in the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle. Someone out there probably has an Airstream trailer about that size. Smaller that the Salyut? Yep, Salyut was about 3,500 cubic feet. The Mir core module was a little smaller than Salyut but still way bigger than the Tiangong. Skylab was an enormous 11,290 cubic foot volume (big diameter).
So how small is too small to be a real space station? Well, I defended Pluto’s planet status out of pure nostalgia, so I suppose any module capable of supporting human life in space should be considered a space station. Though you could argue that if one of your crew has to go back to the Shenzhou to sleep, it’s not a far cry from having to go outside to change your mind.
By the way, Jonathan’s Space Report is a very handy space reference. Jonathan started publishing a no-nonsense newsletter of launches and satellite orbital data back in 1989. I started following him in the early 90’s. (How early? I was using Prodigy for an ISP.) His newsletters helped a great deal in tracking exactly when the Shuttle was docked to Mir and from that, when a contamination event happened. 4589 McDowell is an asteroid named for him.