WITHIN THE next month or two, a young Chinese Air Force pilot will write his name in the history books and become his country’s hero. Four decades after Yuri Gagarin became the first human to venture into the new frontier, China is on the verge of becoming the third nation, after Russia and the United States, to have the independent capability for manned spaceflight.
China is revealing little about its first manned mission. A recent press report said that the Chang Zheng (Long March) 2F rocket had arrived at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre and that the integration of the Shen Zhou (meaning “divine vessel”) spacecraft with the launcher had begun. The launch is expected to take place some time in October or November, with October 10 being mentioned in one report as a possible launch date. An October launch would have particular political significance in China, as it would come soon after the annual celebrations to mark the Communist Revolution. China has been just as reticent about its corps of “yuhang yuan” ( space traveller’). From reports in Chinese newspapers and remarks by Chinese space officials, it appears that this elite group of 14 fighter pilots has been carefully selected from over 2000 candidates. Elaborate measures have been taken to prevent their identities from becoming known and they have been trained in a closely guarded area at the Beijing Aerospace City. At least two of them have trained in Russia in the early 1990s.
But this is no man-in-a-can’ effort merely to demonstrate that China too can safely send a human being into space. The Chinese decided that the primary thrust of their manned space programme during the first decade or so would be the development of a space station, says Phillip Clark, a British expert on the Chinese space programme. Since both the Soviets/Russians and the U.S. had space station experience, the Chinese decided to see what these other countries had done. They found that Soyuz had been a successful space station ferry since April 1971. “So rather than completely re-invent the wheel, they took the basic Soyuz design from the Russians and then modified it for their own needs,” Mr. Clark told The Hindu . The Shen Zhou will also give China the capability to consider manned missions to the moon. The Soyuz, after all, was originally conceived as part of the Soviet Union’s effort to beat the Americans to the moon. The next set of footprints on the moon may well be that of the Chinese, says Mr. Clark, but adds that it may not happen till 2020 or so.
The Chinese interest in manned spaceflight appears to be long-standing. In the 1960s, the Chinese used their T-7A sounding rockets to launch biological cargo, including rats, mice, flies and even dogs. Then, in 1975, China successfully launched and recovered its first Fanhui Shi Weixing (FSW) spacecraft. These satellites were intended for photoreconnaissance, using photographic film, which had to be returned to earth for processing. As these satellites were therefore designed for re-entry to earth, there was speculation that they could become the basis for a manned capsule. So when the Chinese published photographs of men dressed in pressure-suits using space simulators and eating what might be food prepared for use in space, the belief grew that China had embarked on a manned spaceflight programme. As it later turned out, this view was not wholly incorrect. The Chinese, who began developing the FSW satellites in the mid-1960s, did actually embark on a project to develop a manned capsule. The FSW satellites were themselves too small to carry even one astronaut. But the Shu Guang spacecraft were supposed to share the FSW technology. In 1971, 19 astronaut-candidates were selected from among the best of China’s Air Force pilots, with the first manned launch scheduled just two years later. But in the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, the project was poorly supported and was closed down a year later.
There are practical problems in the Shu Guang being modelled on the FSW and there is little technical information available about the Shu Guang spacecraft, says Mr. Clark. But the Chinese have used the FSW to launch and bring back a variety of biological specimens, including guinea pigs, for microgravity experiments. Press reports and articles in aerospace journals suggest that the Chinese space agencies continued preparatory work for a manned spaceflight, including establishing facilities for training astronauts. The Biomedical Institute in Beijing is said to have developed a space suit.
Then, in 1992, the Chinese Government authorised “Project 921,” a comprehensive manned spaceflight programme. Elements of the programme included development of the Shen Zhou-manned spacecraft, upgradation of the CZ-2E launcher to the man-rated CZ-2F version, establishment of ground facilities and astronaut training. In 1996, the Russians announced that two Chinese, Li Tsinlung and Wu Tse, had arrived for a year’s astronaut training in commercial deal. It will be interesting to see if one of the two becomes China’s first yuhang yuan in space. Contrary to some Western reports that China bought a complete Soyuz spacecraft and copied it for their Shen Zhou, Mr. Clark says that the Chinese purchased only some individual items from the Russians. These items, purchased in the mid-1990s, were a Soyuz life-support system, a docking unit, a Soyuz descent module (with all the equipment stripped out) and a Soyuz pressure suit of the type used at launch and landing. Only one of each item was purchased. “The Chinese wanted to see how the Russians had solved various problems and then incorporate those solutions into their design,” according to him.
The general concept, arrangement of systems, and aerodynamics of Shen Zhou is based on the Soyuz, says Mark Wade, a space analyst who runs the space reference website, Encyclopedia Astronautica . But the Shen Zhou is dimensionally different and its every aspect differs in detail from Soyuz. The Chinese have had 25 years of independent spacecraft development experience prior to Shen Zhou, plus access to a lot of the latest Western satellite technology, he points out. Like the Soyuz, the Shen Zhou has three separate modules. Right in front is the orbital module, which can hold experiments and provides the living space for astronauts while in orbit. In the Soyuz, the orbital module is just a sphere which re-enters and burns up in the atmosphere soon after its occupants return to earth. But in the Shen Zhou, it is larger and more cylindrical, with its own solar panels to provide power and propulsion systems for independent manoeuvring. In the last three Shen Zhou launches, the orbital modules have carried out such manoeuvres and remained in the orbit for up to an additional six months. Behind the orbital module is the re-entry capsule which can seat three astronauts at lift-off and during re-entry. The re-entry capsule is bigger than that of the Soyuz and uses different materials too, says Mr. Wade. As with the Russians, the re-entry capsule is intended to come down on land, using parachutes and retro-rockets for the final stages of the descent. At the rear of the Shen Zhou is the service module, with instrumentation, another set of solar panels and the spacecraft’s main propulsion system. The service module is bigger than the Soyuz equivalent and is equipped with Chinese systems. “I think the reason that they (the Chinese) followed the Soyuz idea is that it is a good and proven design, fits their Long March 2 rocket well and gives them the capability they need to supply a space station,” says Brian Harvey, author of a book about the Chinese space programme.
With four unmanned Shen Zhou launches successfully completed between 1999 and early this year, the Shen Zhou 5 is ready for China’s first manned mission. “The next priorities would be a longer flight, spacewalking, docking (like Soyuz 4/5 in 1969) and then bringing a crew up to a space laboratory,” says Mr. Harvey. The Chinese have said they would fly a small space laboratory of 14 tonnes, using the Long March 2EA, before going on to a Salyut-class space station of 20 tonnes when the Long March 5 becomes available, he points out. Even without a manned lunar mission, the Chinese would have enough on their hands for the next decade or more, according to Mr. Clark.
In recent years, the U.S. has often regarded the Chinese space programme with suspicion and hostility. What would their reaction be to a manned Chinese launch? Another Kennedy-like space race? “Mainly boredom,” says John Pike, a U.S. space analyst and non-proliferation expert. China, he says, is now doing what the U.S. did four decades ago. “There will be some effort to spur a space race with China, but it will not arouse much passion.”