Shenzhou 2 Launch Imminent, Chinese Manned Space Program Targets the Moon

Shenzhou spacecraft
Video of Shenzhou spacecraft recently exhibited in Hong Kong.
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It was less than a year ago that China inaugurated its manned space program with the successful launch of their spacecraft "Shenzhou". Shenzhou, meaning "magic vessel" was unmanned during its maiden voyage. Shenzhou was launched at 6:30 local time on 20 November 1999 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launching Center in north-central China aboard a Long March CZ 2F booster and orbited Earth 14 times during its 21 hour mission.

The spacecraft's orbit was 196.3 km x 324.4 km orbit and was inclined at inclination 42.6 with respect to the Earth's equator - half way between the 28 degree inclination favored for non-ISS Space Shuttle flights and the 51.6 degree inclination used by Russian space stations and the ISS.

Shenzhou escape tower
Video of the escape tower engine. The escape tower on the Long March 2F rocket which launches the Shenzhou allows the astronauts in the recovery module to be jettisoned to safety in case the rocket fails during liftoff.
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Known for its penchant for secrecy, the openness with which Chinese space officials spoke of this mission as it was happening and the amount of information freely released to outside media was almost as surprising as the technical accomplishments of the mission itself.

More Than Just a Soyuz Copy

One quick glance at Shenzhou, and you can clearly see that it was heavily influenced by the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. While the Chinese insist that the spacecraft was built with Chinese technology, a regular series of cooperative agreements regarding space technology over the years has clearly paid off. Indeed, the rapid development of their manned space flight program hints at a substantial amount of assistance from Russia.

Shenzhou recovery module
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The Shenzhou spacecraft consists of three sections; the orbital module, the recovery module, and the propulsion module. While the overall configuration is Soyuz-like, the spacecraft tends to have larger dimensions that the Soyuz. The reentry module is some 10 to 15 % larger than its Soyuz counterpart. Shenzhou has more photovoltaic array surface area and is likely to produce more electricity in orbit than the standard Soyuz design.

The most radical difference in terms of design and function between the Soyuz design and the Shenzhou is the orbital module. Shenzhou's orbital module has its own set of solar panels (not used in the first flight), its own propulsion capabilities (demonstrated after it separated from the reentry module); a large hatch (one would assume for EVAs); and a cluster of instruments at the forward end of the module. While the much-expected Russian androgynous docking adapter was not present on the first flight, many expect that this feature can be added. Of course, Shenzhou would need to have something to dock with.

The Long March CZ-2F Launch Vehicle

To get Shenzhou into orbit the Chinese used the new manned rated launch vehicle Long March (Chen Zou) CZ-2F - a variation upon its CZ-2E booster. The CZ-2F is the largest and most capable launch vehicle the Chinese have in their inventory. Ever efficient, the Chinese have leveraged several uses together during the development of this launch vehicle.

Shenzhou launch
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In his 15 October 2000 Spacelift column, Frank Sietzen notes that "the first series of upgrades to the CZ-2E include manrating the vehicle into the 2F configuration now used as the Shenzhou launch vehicle. Changes here include the vehicle's guidance system, a launch escape system for the piloted spacecraft, and more accurate orbital insertion capabilities. While such would be needed for the accurate tracking of the Shenzhou once in Earth orbit, such accuracy has commercial potential in inserting satellites into precise orbits, a critical function of any commercial satellite launcher."

China Shows Off

An exhibit featuring Shenzhou and other aspects of China's space programs was displayed recently in Hong Kong. The scope and breadth of the exhibit is like no other that China has ever presented. The Chinese showcased their achievements in space displaying a full engineering mockup of Shenzhou. Some actual items from its inaugural flight were also on display. These included the parachute and a variety of commemorative items carried inside the spacecraft including postal items, flags, and seeds. Some actual components from its inaugural flight were also on display including the Shenzhou's parachute.

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Video of a recovered satellite.
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In addition to items that flew on the first mission, flight ready hardware was also on display: a payload fairing that covers the Shenzhou and an escape tower from a CZ 2F launch vehicle. The Shenzhou on display is identical to the one that flew in space. It was unclear from the description on the exhibit whether this was a flight unit or a test model.

In addition to Shenzhou, artifacts from what China considers its top 20 achievements in space this century were also on display. With one quarter of the exhibit set aside to showcase Shenzhou this was the Chinese space program's coming out party. The crowds that came to see this showcase - and their reaction to what they saw - reminded me of the crowds I have seen visiting the Smithsonian Air and Space museum in Washington.

The Chinese are proud of their accomplishments - and it showed. This exhibit was clearly intended to serve as a signal to both China and the world that China is serious about space and intends to be a serious participant in human spaceflight in the future.

It was interesting to note that one of the memorabilia items for sale at the exhibit is a board game called the "Space Race Board Game". The game was created by the Hong Kong Space Museum and is meant to be educational, however the title is suggestive.

What's Next?

Shenzhou shroud
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Persistent rumors would have us believe that a launch of the next Shenzhou spacecraft is about to take place - perhaps before the end of the year. Just as the Chinese were openly promoting their accomplishments and capabilities in Hong Kong they were still reserved when it came to saying when the next one would take place.

This past week at the International Space Symposium in Washington DC, Zhang Xinxia, president of the China Great Wall Industry Corporation, stated that China would launch two more unmanned experimental Shenzhou spacecraft before sending their first astronauts into space.

He went on to say that this venture is "grand, complex, and very expensive. It is highly risky and we need to be very careful and will continue to make tests." When asked who would be the first person to fly in Shenzhou he replied with a smile that this person would be Chinese.

China's Space Program: Slightly More Open

While these statements are still lacking in detail, they are a marked departure from comments made at the same meeting a year earlier. On 3 November 1999, just days before the launch of Shenzhou, Luo Ge, Director General of Foreign Affairs of the China National Space Administration spoke at the International Space Business Assembly in Washington D.C. He was asked "Is China's manned spacecraft based upon Russia's Soyuz spacecraft?" Luo was less than forthcoming in his answer.

Luo replied that "the program is proceeding on schedule and we do not see anything in the way. So long as the finances are in place, we can launch at our convenience". When the initial question was asked, Luo replied that "the spacecraft was designed, developed, and produced by ourselves." Luo Ge clearly chose his words carefully so as to say something without saying anything.

Clearly China is moving towards a somewhat more open space program. However, they make it abundantly clear by their actions (or lack thereof) that they - and they alone - will chose the time and place where information is released and what information will be released. They also seem to be moving ahead according to their own schedule - not one subject to the public pressures that accompany the American and Russian space programs.

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China Eyes The Moon

The Chinese, it seems, are now very interested in the moon. Once again an exhibit is the where things are revealed. Models on display at the Chinese Pavilion of the Hanover Expo 2000 show Chinese astronauts on the moon with a rover. According to the exhibit Chinese astronauts would land on the moon in 2005 and eventually create a permanent lunar base by 2015 to mine Helium-3 from the lunar soil. Helium-3 is considered an excellent fuel source that would be used in nuclear fusion plants. It produces virtually no radioactive by-product.

Shortly after news of this exhibit began to circulate, semi-official Chinese media sources sought to squelch rumors by saying that robots would be sent to the Moon well before China considered sending humans. No one denied that China was interested in sending humans however.

What Does it All Mean?

Clearly China has an interest in exploring space and an evolving capability to act upon this interest. Given that the cost of space exploration is still significant, and the fact that China is still not a wealthy country, one would expect that China would seek to pace its efforts so as to be commensurate with its more limited capabilities. AS such, it would make sense to leverage as many systems for multiple uses as possible - the Long March upgrades and their dual human/commercial uses being one example.

The Chinese are also consummate pragmatists and opportunists. If China is going to send humans to the moon, you can bet that Shenzhou is a clear preview of how they plan to do it. Wouldn't it be ironic if China sent its "yuhangyuan" (astronauts) to the moon using a spacecraft modeled after the Soviet-developed Soyuz - a spacecraft the Soviets hoped, but never had the chance to use - to send its cosmonauts to the moon.

Shenzhou astronauts train
Space microclimate
simulated experimental module.
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Chinese mission control.

Related Links

  • 3 November 1999: Comments by Luo Ge, Director General, Department of Foreign Affairs China National Space Administration to the International Space Business Assembly (ISBA) held in Washington, D.C.

  • Shenzhou, Encyclopedia Astronautica

  • Chinese Space Activities, Federation of American Scientists

  • Go Taikonauts! (aka Dragon in Space)

  • China National Space Administration


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