Piloted docking at Tiangong 1

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.

5 thoughts on “Piloted docking at Tiangong 1”

  1. At least the Chinese can get their own commienauts into orbit without having to hitch a ride with the Ruskies. Maybe one day when we’re all grown up we’ll do for ourselves.

  2. Our fracked up priorities and lack of fiscal discipline have left us dependent on the Russians. Meanwhile the Chinese are doing this. What an indictment on our system.

    1. Time to take a deep breath, and gain perspective, Bill.

      We (the US) don’t have a manned launcher because NASA insisted everyone use the Shuttle. They needed that because they originally planned on 40-50 launcher per year. That level of frequency was the main support for the argument that the Shuttle would give is a far lower $/pound to orbit.

      Actually, the Shuttle was what’s left of the planned Mars mission back in the early 1970s, before budget cuts. NASA focused (like a laser beam! {/snerk}) on saving something, so the Shuttle ended up dominating the agency. Then -as I pointed out above- NASA forced everyone else into a “one size fits all” strategy to justify keeping the Shuttle program going. It should be self-evident that different needs gives different vehicles; you don’t use a semi-tractor when a pickup truck will do, and neither one is very effective for cab service.

      Any program run by the government will eventually become jacked up. Remember the old joke “Elephant: a mouse built to government specifications.” That’s the Shuttle.

      The best way to encourage space development is change our laws (dump the Space Treaty for a start), and starting hiring private launch companies. NASA finally did the latter with SpaceX, but note that only happened after Shuttle died.

      As for griping about the Chinese doing what we aren’t; it’s not so hard to use late 1960s/early 1970s launch technology to implement China’s program, which is what they’ve done. Russia did all the heavy lifting for them, and now they’re piggy-backing off of that work.

      I don’t doubt the Air Force could knock out a program of (say) a half-dozen Apollo-era CSM vehicles, launch an updated MOS, then dock the vehicles in seriatim using modern Atlas & Titan booster. The only question is why, aside from the PR.

      …Come to think of it, the AF could get it done even more quickly by hiring SpaceX to speed up man-rated Dragons, and the Falcon Heavy Lifter. 😉

  3. Command economies are generally pretty good at doing big things; pyramids, walls, space programs, etc. Market economies are much better at little things like making sure there’s enough toilet paper AND food for the population.

    They have a manned space program, we have Costco*. I leave it as an exercise for the reader which is the greater achievement.

    *Note that we could, if absolutely necessary, have a manned space program next week (or however long it takes to convert a manned Dragon capsule). We will have one within a few years.

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