The Chinese manned space programme has taken another decisive step forward. The recent three-day mission of Shenzhou-7 saw the spaceship carrying its full complement of three astronauts, one of whom carried out China’s first space walk. The next set of missions could see an ambitious effort to create a space laboratory by docking multiple spacecraft. China then intends establishing a permanently manned space station. There is talk too of the country sending its own astronauts to the Moon.
China’s interest in manned space flight appears to go back to the 1970s. But a serious effort to achieve that goal began only when a programme, code-named “Project 921,” received government approval in 1992.
Shenzhou (meaning “Divine Vessel”) is based on the well-proven Russian Soyuz design. Like the Soyuz, the Shenzhou too consists of three modules. A service module with the spacecraft’s propulsion systems, instrumentation and a set of solar panels come at the rear. In the middle is the re-entry capsule in which up to three astronauts can travel to and from space. Right in front is the orbital module that provides living space for the astronauts during the mission.
But the Shenzhou is not a copy of the Soyuz. It is larger , and the spacecraft and its systems have been designed and manufactured by the Chinese to meet their requirements. For instance, its orbital module, unlike that of the Soyuz, is equipped with a propulsion system and solar panels. So even after the astronauts return to the earth in the re-entry capsule, the orbital module can be operated from the ground by remote control for several months more.
Before sending humans in the spacecraft, the Chinese extensively tested the Shenzhou in a series of trial flights that carried scientific experiments, animals, plants and human dummies. The first Shenzhou launch in November 1999 lasted less than a day. At the next launch in January 2001, Shenzhou-2 was in orbit for more than six days before the re-entry capsule returned to the earth. Shenzhou-3 was tested in 2002, with the re-entry capsule recovered after five days and the orbital module remaining in space for six months. The final test with Shenzhou-4 took place in December 2002.
Finally, in October 2003, Yang Liwei blasted off in Shenzhou-5 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre. After circling the globe for over 21 hours, he returned home safe to national adulation. China became just the third country, after Russia and the U.S., to undertake a manned space flight.
In October 2005, Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng travelled to space in Shenzhou-6, and the duo remained in space for five days. Unlike Mr. Yang, who remained strapped to his seat for the whole duration of the flight, Mr. Fei and Mr. Nie moved from the re-entry capsule to the orbital module after launch and even removed their space suits. During their time in space, they were able to eat hot food and beverages and rest in sleeping bags. They also carried out various experiments.
Last month, the Chinese sent three astronauts into space aboard Shenzhou-7. The highlight was undoubtedly the 20-minute space walk by Zhai Zhigang. The special space suit he wore for the space walk as well as the airlock through which he left and returned to the orbital module was Chinese-made. Fellow astronaut, Liu Boming, wearing a Russian space suit, stood by in the orbital module, ready to help if Mr. Zhai ran into trouble. Meanwhile, Jing Haipeng, waited in the re-entry capsule. The three astronauts returned safely after nearly three days in the orbit.
The space walk was “a very significant step forward,” observed Brian Harvey, a space analyst based in Ireland who has studied the space programmes of various countries and written a book on the Chinese programme. “It is significant in terms of space station construction and it is significant in terms of astronauts walking on the Moon,” he told this correspondent shortly before the Shenzhou-7 launch.
The next step for the Chinese could be several spacecraft being docked together to make an orbiting space laboratory. A recent report in the Shanghai Daily, quoting Qi Faren, chief designer of the Shenzhou, said Shenzhou-8, -9 and -10 could be launched at intervals of less a month in 2010. Shenzhou-8 and 9 would be unmanned and equipped as laboratories. Shenzhou-10 would take astronauts to space. One of the Shenzhou spacecraft would probably have a port allowing multiple spacecraft to dock, noted Mr. Harvey.
An alternative scenario is provided by Australian space analyst Morris Jones. In an article published on the Space Daily website ( http://www.spacedaily.com) recently, Dr. Jones says China has revealed plans for a small space laboratory module, “Tiangong 1,” that would be launched in 2010 or 2011. Unmanned Shenzhou-8 and Shenzhou-9 spacecraft would then be launched and automatically docked with Tiangong-1. Finally, these spacecraft would be joined by Shenzhou-10 with three astronauts onboard.
At the recent International Astronautical Congress in Glasgow, Sun Laiyan, head of the China National Space Administration, is reported by the publication Aviation Week as having said the plan was to launch a simple orbiting “space lab” by 2011 and assemble a space station from several such labs by 2020. But first a future Shenzhou mission had to demonstrate spacecraft rendezvous and docking.
To put up a full space station, China would need the Long March 5 launcher, which was currently under development and could be ready by 2012-2014, said Mr. Harvey. The rocket would be able to carry a space station of 20-25, maybe even 30, tonnes, he added.
Chinese space officials have indicated that the country could send its astronauts to the Moon and perhaps establish a base there. The Long March 5 would be able to send a Shenzhou spacecraft around the Moon, noted Mr. Harvey. “But they would need to develop [the rocket] quite a lot more for a manned lunar landing.”
“Certainly it is possible that if China wants to put people on the Moon, and if it wishes to do so before the United States, it can. As a matter of technical capability, it absolutely can,” observed Michael Griffin, head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, when he spoke to the BBC News website a few months ago.
As Phillip Clark, a British expert on the Chinese space programme, once remarked, “The next footsteps on the Moon could be Chinese.”
6 months ago