Tokyo - Apr 9, 2002
In a report that the Chinese media widely published on Apr. 3 and 4, a space official hinted strongly that China would attempt the first manned launch with the Shenzhou-5 (SZ-5) mission next year.
The official also revealed that the first group of 12 yuhangyuans ("astronauts") made their appearance to even most people involved in the manned space project for the first time.
The report came only two days after the successful completion of the SZ-3 mission on Apr. 1.
At the beginning of the SZ-3 mission, space officials said that China would launch its first manned flight after several additional unmanned test missions.
Even weeks before the launch of SZ-3, the earliest estimate that space officials had given on the first manned mission was on SZ-6; which might occur late next year.
The news of the SZ-5 manned launch attempt came when the launch test team from the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST, formerly known as the Shanghai Bureau of Astronautics) returned to Shanghai.
At the reception ceremony Deputy Launch Director of the SZ-3 mission Qin Wenbo said, "At the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre (JSLC), we saw, for the first time, the first group of yuhangyuans that our country has trained; a total of 12 people. They are all pilots of fighter or attacker planes."
SAST develops and builds the Changzheng-2F (Long March-2F) launcher that sends the Shenzhou spacecraft (Shenzhou means "Magic Vessel" or "Divine Vessel") into space.
Qin added: "Among these 12 people, there will be two to three people who will become China's first group of yuhangyuans to travel in space. ... Who would be among this first group would probably be disclosed moments before the SZ-5 launch."
Qin explained that an early disclosure of the names of the first manned mission crew would "cause a psychological strain on the yuhangyuans that would lead to a degradation in skill."
The focus of the primary mission of SZ-3 was to test systems that would ensure the safety of yuhangyuans.
This included assessing the functionality, reliability and safety of each manned spaceflight system; coordination among different systems; the spacecraft environment for manned flight; the effectiveness of the improved measures that have been implemented; the escape and emergency life support systems; and the capability of the launcher's redundant control system.
For the first time the launch escape system was installed on the CZ-2F launcher and test fired during ascent. Space officials have not commented on how successful the test is.
The emergency escape system on the launch pad was also tested prior to the launch of SZ-3.
According to Qin the 12 yuhangyuans, who were selected among 2,000 middle ranking Air Force pilots, were at JSLC not only to see the SZ-3 liftoff. They went through an emergency bailout exercise on the pad.
The published report quoted Qin as saying that the yuhangyuans "only used about 5 seconds to bail out of the danger".
In case of an emergency on the pad before liftoff, yuhangyuans would punch open the escape hatch on Shenzhou to exit the vehicle. They would then run to the opening of a "white tunnel" and slide down the 8-storey tall tunnel to reach a bunker under the pad. The duration of the slide is about one minute.
Satisfaction With Sz-3 Mission
These officials were Su Shuangning, Director and Chief Designer of the yuhangyuan system of the manned space project; Qi Faren, Chief Designer of the Shenzhou spacecraft; and Wang Yongzhi, Chief Designer of the manned space project and a rocket technology specialist.
They all expressed satisfaction with the performance of the SZ-3 spacecraft and were optimistic that the first manned mission would occur within two years.
Su, who is responsible for yuhangyuan selection and training, and their space medical monitoring and protection, said that based on preliminary data from the mission, space officials were very satisfied with the parameters of the environment inside the modules.
"During on-orbit working and living, the overall environment would not affect yuhangyaun's health and efficiency," said Su.
Echoed Qi Faren, who reckoned that spacecraft environmental control would be very important.
He pointed out that temperature, humidity, oxygen level and the removal of carbon dioxide were critical components of the environment control and life protection system that would ensure the safety and comfort of living and working in space.
Qi also recognized that the other critical system would be the emergency escape system. Yuhangyuans would rely on the system to bailout when an emergency develops, either with the launcher or the Shenzhou spacecraft.
Qi said that everyone involved in the manned space project was striving for the perfect operation of the launcher and spacecraft. The objective to guarantee the safe launching and returning of yuhangyuans is of paramount importance to the manned space project.
"An experiment can fail, but it cannot sacrifice [a person]," Qi asserted.
He gave the success rate of the CZ-2F launcher at 97 percent and had to count on the reliability of the escape system to make up the remaining 3 percent of the success rate.
Qi is confident that the perfect success rate is achievable.
He added that the technological level of the Chinese launch escape system would be comparable to that of Russia and the U.S.
Many space officials feel that the successful completion of the SZ-3 mission is another giant step towards the first manned mission in the very near future.
Wang Yongzhi said that the technical conditions of the SZ-3 test flight were the same as in a future manned mission. The successful SZ-3 mission "lays a very good foundation for future manned flights."
Wang believed that the project had the necessary conditions for a manned space mission. "We hope to conduct a few more unmanned test flights to further assess the reliability and safety [of the launcher and the spacecraft]."
"At that time we will begin manned spaceflight. The time won't be too far off, I think, perhaps within two years," said Wang.
Rapid Development Of First Manned Flight News
On Apr. 3 Wen Wei Po in Hong Kong quoted Liu Zhusheng, Chief Designer of CZ-2F, as saying that the unmanned Shenzhou-4 mission would be launched late this year.
Wang said in the CCTV interview that he would not expect too many changes to the technical conditions of the SZ-4 spacecraft.
However, unidentified sources told Wen Wei Po in a report published on Mar. 26 that the next step in modifying Shenzhou might include installation of a docking mechanism at the front of the Orbital Module and a test docking two space vehicles. These sources said that the exercise would be a precursor to an orbiting Chinese space laboratory.
These sources also said that the next Shenzhou landing might be a splashdown at sea.
Then on the same day the news of the first manned mission attempt on SZ-5 began to appear in the Chinese media.
The news prompted questions the following day at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs press briefing.
The ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue was asked whether China would continue independent development of the manned space project, or ready to collaborate with the U.S., Russia, Europe, Japan and other spacefaring nations.
Zhang replied that space technology development in China was based on the self-reliance spirit. But China would also be ready to increase collaboration with other countries.
Then she was asked about the timing of the next Shenzhou launch and how many yuhangyuans were in training. Zhang confirmed that China was training a group of yuhangyuans, but she did not have information on when the SZ-4 mission would occur.
The apparent trouble-free mission of SZ-3 is just another step in China's systematic approach in the manned space project.
During the CCTV interview Wang said that the current activities signalled the first phase of the project, which would see several unmanned launches that would lead to the historic breakthrough, the first manned space mission.
After that the role of the Shenzhou spacecraft would be transformed into an air-to-ground transportation system that could dock with the future orbiting space laboratory, where yuhangyuans and scientists would conduct space experiments and Earth observations "on a substantial scale."
Not The First Group Of Yuhangyuans
For example in January last year, the pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po reported that four yuhangyuans had been in training at a base in Beijing in preparation for the first manned Shenzhou mission in the future.
Other reports in the past few years had said that since 1996 at least two yuhangyuans had received training at the cosmonaut training centre in Star City, Russia.
All these reports refer to the yuhangyuan training effort under the current manned space project, codenamed Project 921. With the blessing of President Jiang Zemin, the project had its beginning in January 1992.
Prior to Project 921, there was another serious effort to mount a manned space project and recruitment of yuhangyuans in the early 1970s.
The story of this earlier effort is chronicled in a lengthy article "Send Chinese Yuhangyuans Into Space!". The article was originally published in Volume 1 of Times Literature last year, then republished with an enhanced content in the November 2001 issue of Beijing Literature, and made available online at Sina.com .
According to the article, perhaps 19 fighter pilots were recruited in 1970 as yuhangyuans to receive training for the planned first manned space mission on the "Dawn-1" spacecraft in 1973. The definite number remains uncertain as the ageing principals involved in the project recall recruiting anywhere between 10 and 20 yuhangyuans, with 19 the likely number.
Despite the chaos amid the Cultural Revolution, the then manned space project had forged ahead.
Just when the training of these 19 yuhangyuans were set to begin, a failed coup on the late Chairman Mao Zedong in early September 1971 had thrown the entire nation into a crisis. The manned space project had come to an abrupt halt as a result.
After reconsidering its huge costs, the early attempt on the manned space project never restarted again. China then turned its space effort towards application satellites and their benefits to the country.
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