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China drops hints about space secrets

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After four unmanned trial flights, China’s first-ever piloted spacecraft, the Shenzhou 5 is set to soar. When it does, and if triumphant, China will be propelled into an exclusive country-club status: the third nation capable of independently rocketing humans into Earth orbit.

ALTHOUGH TIGHT-LIPPED on a range of technical details, Chinese space officials have hinted at a multipronged human spaceflight program, including space station construction, as well as eventual travel to the moon, all by 2020.

China’s first piloted space journey could occur as early as next month. And as NASA comes to grips with a grounded space shuttle fleet, the Red Dragon is on the rise.


Last week the Xinhua News Agency reported that Xu Guanhua, China’s science and technology minister, has stated that preparations for the historic flight were going smoothly, although no specific date for the takeoff was identified.

Rumor has it that the piloted Shenzhou 5 could be airborne as early as Oct. 1, Chinese National Day — the founding of the communist state. Others, including foreign intelligence analysts, speculate that mid-October appears to be the liftoff time frame. Several factors will dictate the launch date, Chinese space planners insist, such as weather, solar activities and space radiation levels around Earth.

Even the issue of threatening space debris is being addressed.

Last month, Chinese media outlets reported that Shenzhou 5 would be outfitted with an alarm system to avoid collisions between the craft and chunks of speeding space flotsam.

Mention of the Shenzhou alarm system came during a second national space debris workshop held in Shanghai. Du Heng, chief scientist at the Center for Space Science and Applied Research under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said the hardware allows the spacecraft to dodge space litter automatically.


Whenever Shenzhou 5 roars into space, it will be perched atop a Long March 2F booster, departing from China’s expansive Jiuquan Space Launch Center in northwestern Gansu Province. Touchdown of the craft is expected to be on Inner Mongolian grassland.

From late 1999 into early 2003, four shakeout flights of the Shenzhou spaceship took place.

The Shenzhou 5 features three modules, from front to end: An orbital module holding science equipment; the crew-carrying ascent/decent module; and a service module with attached solar panels, loaded with electronic gear and rocket engines.

While the crew compartment can hold as many as three passengers, Shenzhou 5 is seemingly destined to be operated by a lone pilot. Only one person will be aboard the upcoming mission, according to Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong-based Web site.

The overall, multielement national program for lofting its first pilot into space was given the go-ahead by the Chinese government in 1992, and is tagged Project 921.

Drawing upon the country’s top jet fighter pilots, China has put an initial group of 14 yuhang yuans, or astronauts, into training. They are reportedly all younger than 30, each with a flying time of more than 1,000 hours. Of this cadre of carefully picked individuals, two of them are apparently trainers for the other astronaut candidates.


British space sleuth Phillip Clark, a leading authority on both China and Russia space progress, told that there is now a pool of just five people. One of those five will be the preferred candidate that slips into the Shenzhou 5 seat.

Clark said that China’s space officials are likely to announce who will fly into space days before the launch.

“My guess is that they will also announce approximately how long the flight is going to last. They may also broadcast the launch live, breaking into whatever Chinese soap opera might be showing that day,” Clark said.

There are still lots of unknowns about the impending flight, Clark said, “but I’m surprised how open the Chinese have been.”

Based on reports by Chinese media outlets, Clark said that both the launch and landing of Shenzhou 5 will take place during daylight. Flight time for Shenzhou 5 is considered to be less than 24 hours.

Clark anticipates that the Shenzhou 5 flight will be “nice and simple.” While zipping around the Earth, the spaceship will demonstrate its “significant” maneuvering capability, he said.

Over the last few months, Clark said, much of China’s space muscle has been solely concentrating on readying the launch vehicle and the spacecraft.

“They want to make sure everything works properly,” Clark said. “I think the pilot’s mission is basically go up there, survive … and come down alive.”


Earlier this year, in a wide-ranging discussion with the People’s Daily, some details were offered as to how the Shenzhou booster was human-rated.

Huang Chunping, deputy chief commander of the Jiuquan Space Launch Center was also identified as commander-in-chief of the specially outfitted booster that will lift Chinese space pilots into orbit, tagged the “Shenjian”-Long March 2F rocket.

Huang said that there is enormous pressure to assure the readiness of a piloted Shenzhou vehicle. He noted that both Russia and the United States carried out a dozen or so test shots prior to sending their first astronauts into space. In contrast, China is moving into manned flight after only four unpiloted missions, he said.

The Shenjian-Long March 2F booster features a range of safety systems. An automatic fault-detection and escape system is tied to 310 kinds of failure modes, Huang said. In designing one element of the escape system, a Russian design approach was once considered. “But they set the price at $10 million. Finally we solved the problem on our own,” he added.

More than 3,000 factories and tens of thousands of scientists, technicians and managers are engaged in shaping China’s manned space project, Huang said in the People’s Daily interview.


Are Chinese engineers just copycats, blueprinting the Shenzhou after the Russian Soyuz spacecraft design?

Spaceships are spaceships, said Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of the Naval War College’s National Security Decision Making Department in Newport, R.I.

Everyone is interested in how much of the Shenzhou is Russian and how much Chinese, Johnson-Freese said. If one country builds a 737 airplane and the other builds an Airbus, are they similar or different? How different would skeptics like a Chinese rocket to be before it would qualify to be “their own,” she asked.

“Rocketry is rocketry, I’m told. And once the basic principles are understood, successfully launching a rocket means being attentive to literally thousands of details … and understanding the details. More rocket accidents are found to be caused from inattention to detail than faulty design.” Johnson-Freese said.

Yes, the Shenzhou is very similar to Soyuz, Johnson-Freese said. “Is that wisely learning from others rather than reinventing the wheel, or does it indicate a lack of ability or inferiority? Depends on what you are looking to prove. If the latter, then I would suppose that concerns about Chinese military benefits from their manned space program are lessened,” she concluded.


It’s clear that the Shenzhou booster has gotten a technology makeover, said Clark, the British space analyst.

“The Long March 2F has improved guidance and control equipment. They’ve upgraded the engines and have new computer systems onboard. Plus, of course, there’s the launch escape system,” Clark said.

Clark said that the Chinese have taken a different path in designing Shenzhou’s escape system — a better approach than that adopted for Russia’s Soyuz vehicle.

Thanks to an extra set of motors mounted on the booster’s shroud, escape of a Shenzhou craft from a failing Long March can be done at a very high altitude.

“So in that sense, I think Shenzhou is even safer than Russia’s Soyuz,” Clark said.

Another design difference from Soyuz is Shenzhou’s orbital module.

Once the Shenzhou 5 flight draws to a close, its forward module will be released, as has been the case in the last three of Shenzhou’s four test trips. Packed with experiments, and powered by its own solar panels, the orbital module is likely to stay spinning around Earth for six months. While floating through space, the Shenzhou segment can be maneuvered by ground controllers.


Once the passenger-carrying Shenzhou 5 descent module touches down, what next for China’s budding human space program?

“The Chinese program always progresses at a scale that makes a snail look supersonic,” Clark explained. He expects a follow-on piloted mission in the summer of next year. Perhaps a larger crew would make that trip.

What follows in the near future is a possible docking between two Shenzhou vehicles. In fact, Clark said he expects the soon-to-fly Shenzhou 5 to be outfitted with a test set of docking hardware.

“Don’t expect anything exciting and innovative with this mission. And certainly don’t expect the Chinese to suddenly start flying crews every few months,” Clark said.

Clark predicted that, for the foreseeable future, a maximum of two Chinese manned launches would fly in any 12-month period.

“They’ve got to build up a lot of their own experience…and that’s going to take time for them to do,” Clark advised.


Even before Shenzhou 5 flies, China’s ever-growing technological aptitude has already spawned a number of deals with other spacefaring nations.

For instance, China and the European Union reached an agreement on Sept. 18, a deal that has China participating in the Galileo project — not reviving the now lost-to-Jupiter probe, but taking part in Europe’s major satellite-navigation program by the same name. This agreement spurs partnerships on satellite navigation in a wide range of sectors, notably science and technology, industrial manufacturing, and service and market development.

Another example is last month’s agreement between China and Russia to plot a course together in future space exploration efforts.

No doubt that the successful flight of a piloted Shenzhou 5 would catapult China into top-drawer status in terms of nations capable of doing heady things in space.

The trek could trigger a number of actions said Roger Launius, chair of the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

“I am excited that there is a third nation that has made the investment in human spaceflight and will soon join the U.S. and Russia in this grand experiment,” Launius said. “It is obvious that the Chinese are seeking to demonstrate to the world their great power status through this act. The prestige they will engender in this effort is something that they have been seeking for several years,” he said.

Launius said one follow-on prospect is for China to become a part of the international partnership building the space station. “Perhaps their energy will help jump-start a return to the moon for humanity. I’d certainly like to think so,” he said.

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