Shenzhou-10 will launch with three crew members, most likely in June of next year, Niu Hongguang, the deputy commander in chief of China’s manned space program, said on China National Radio, according to Agence France-Presse via MSN.
Niu’s comments about the planned launch came on the sidelines of China's 18th Communist Party Congress in Beijing.
Shenzhou-10 will likely feature a woman among its crew members, Niu said.
This year, China sent its first female astronaut into space as a Shenzhou-9 crew member. Shenzhou-9 also had the distinction of carrying out China’s first manual space-docking mission, a major milestone for the country’s space program.
Shenzhou-10 will also carry out a manual space-docking mission, when the spacecraft docks with the Tiangong-1 module while in orbit, as did Shenzhou-9.
Docking with Tiangong-1 was a major leap forward for the Chinese space program. The country hopes to have a manned space station in permanent orbit by the end of the decade, and its increasing ability to dock while in orbit is considered a positive sign for the country’s space program.
In its last white paper on space, China said it was working toward landing an astronaut on the moon, but it did not specify a time frame, AFP reported.
So far, the U.S. is the only country to land astronauts on the moon, although its last manned moon mission was in December 1972, almost 40 years ago.
China’s leaps forward in manned space technology come at a time when other superpowers such as the U.S. and Russia have been downplaying the importance of manned space missions.
Last year, the U.S. decommissioned its space-shuttle program while focusing more on long-range unmanned missions such as the Curiosity rover’s mission to Mars. Russia has also indicated that manned missions are of very low concern to its space program.
In contrast, China has been making great strides in its manned space technology. Shenzhou-10 will be the country’s fifth manned spaceflight since 2003 -- and, by all accounts, the current Shenzhou program is only a stepping-stone to much larger missions to the moon and potentially beyond.
However, the situation may be changing for the U.S. space program. Several NASA insiders have recently been dropping hints that the space program may once again focus on manned missions to the moon, near-Earth asteroids, and elsewhere, according to Space.com.
Perhaps all the American space program needed was a little competition.