Sydney - Jan 06, 2003
China's Shenzhou human spaceflight program has held the world's attention for more then four years, but day-by-day activity has been somewhat scarce. The best way to examine this gradually evolving episode in the history of space travel is to hit the rewind button of journalism, then watch the results on fast forward.
Starting in mid-1999, rumours began to emerge from China's notoriously secret space program about a new venture for human spaceflight. Photographs were soon leaked onto the Internet that depicted a rocket with a payload fairing similar to a Russian Soyuz launch vehicle.
The authenticity of the photos, and of the elusive "Project 921" that they were said to depict, were debated by wary space analysts. Rumours of Chinese astronauts in waiting had been circulating since the nineteen sixties, and scepticism was understandably commonplace. It was thus somewhat ironic that China's announcement of its human spaceflight program was greeted with a certain measure of disbelief.
Reports of an imminent launch were even dismissed as sloppy reporting. Suddenly, in November 1999, China surprised everyone by orbiting a prototype of its crew-carrying spacecraft and returning it to Earth.
Now bearing the more pleasant moniker of "Shenzhou", which is usually translated as "Divine Vessel", the bell-shaped re-entry module of this first mission was triumphantly returned from its landing site in Inner Mongolia to a propaganda-laden reception in Beijing.
Later, it would emerge that the one-day mission had been carried out by a stripped-down spacecraft that did not even have a life-support system, but the achievement was still enormous. Just add a few more features and modifications, and China would have a fully developed vessel for its astronauts.
Shenzhou's publicity apparatus would close down almost as rapidly as it had opened in the weeks to follow, as engineers busied themselves with preparations for the next mission. Time dragged on, little was said, and rumours of imminent launches failed to produce results.
China's peculiar pattern of disclosures and censorship for its space program was continuing to frustrate observers, and cloud perceptions of the program. With no activity, and no announcements, was the program even still active? The answer came after an interval of roughly fourteen months, when Shenzhou 2 lifted off in January 2001.
The flight of Shenzhou 1 had only been announced in retrospect, long after the capsule had successfully touched down. But Shenzhou 2 was covered by the media during its launch and orbital mission. It seemed that the program was at last opening up during this week-long flight.
Suddenly, this policy pole shift underwent another reversal as Shenzhou returned to Earth. China issued a brief statement claiming that the capsule had landed and the mission had been successfully accomplished, but nothing else was released.
The vivid photographs of a friction-charred capsule resting on the flat expanses of Inner Mongolia that we expected were nowhere to be seen. Such imagery had been released for Shenzhou 1, but recovery crews had apparently forgotten their cameras for the second mission.
Observers would conclude that the second mission had suffered from technical problems, and the sudden blackout was meant to conceal this. The most frequently discussed rumour suggests some sort of failure with the parachute system, which produced a "hard landing".
To date, China has done little to quell this speculation. Confusion also exists about the experiments carried on board the spacecraft, which were said to include animals.
Shenzhou again disappeared behind its curtains of secrecy while preparations began for the third mission. Media statements, both official and unofficial, suggest that there was an intensive period of design work on the spacecraft.
Improvements included a new pattern for the spacecraft's electrical wiring, which saved a considerable amount of weight. There were also problems with the actual construction of the third vehicle, which continued to generate technical glitches. Such problems were apparently the cause of the lengthy delay in launching the next mission. Shenzhou 3 did not lift off until March 2002.
China's human spaceflight program was back in operation, and so was the publicity apparatus. In addition to the expected footage of the launch, observers were treated to live video taken on board the orbiting spacecraft, as a camera gazed out a porthole at the Earth below.
This new vehicle sported a suite of experiments, and a life support system. The vehicle contained all the elements of a fully operational spacecraft, and even carried dummies that simulated the metabolic functions of a human crew.
Shenzhou 3 orbited for roughly a week, then returned to Earth. The photography had also returned. Recovery crews clad in bright red parkas emblazoned with the Chinese characters for "life guard" were shown racing towards the capsule, a curious Baywatch-style scene in an ocean-free area. When Chinese officials announced that the flight had been successful, the claim was accepted.
China had now demonstrated a successful mission by a fully designed spacecraft. With a little more testing, Shenzhou would be ready for a crew.
Shenzhou's human elements were also ready for their missions. A team of "yuhanguans", or astronauts, had been assembled from the ranks of China's fighter pilots. Their training had been carried out in secret, and their identities were not disclosed. To date, few specific details have been released about these individuals.
Quickening the pace slightly, China managed to launch the fourth Shenzhou mission roughly nine months after the third had returned from orbit. Its mission began in late December 2002, and ended in early January 2003.
The flight of Shenzhou 4 has now advanced China's human spaceflight program to its most advanced stage so far. The vehicle is said to be essentially the same as Shenzhou 3, and its mission has also resembled that of its predcessor. But Shenzhou isn't running on the spot.
The carbon-copy nature of the flight shows that the design bugs have been ironed out and that the result is probably very reliable. Two successful flights of a fully implemented Shenzhou, coupled with the results of two previous test missions, must give its designers confidence in the system.
So, when will the first yuhangyuans strap themselves on board for an actual flight?
According to statements from the Chinese themselves, the first crewed Shenzhou mission will take place in the second half of this year. Curiously, China made this announcement when the flight of Shenzhou 4 was not even at the halfway point, suggesting that little else remained to be tested on the mission before the vehicle was declared ready for a crew.
Chinese sources suggest that Shenzhou 5 will probably carry a single yuhangyuan, and will stay in orbit for roughly seven days. China's first astronaut will probably spend a lot of time making television broadcasts to a media-hungry world below, but will also find the time to carry out some experiments. He will return to a carefully managed public relations tour of their homeland, and may even be sent internationally. It remains to be seen how the world will react to this rapidly approaching milestone in the history of spaceflight.
Morris Jones is a Sydney-based journalist and can be contacted via email at morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Repace NOSPAM with @ to send email.
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Shenzhou Mission Remains Under Tight Wraps
Sydney - Mar 26, 2002
The third test launch of China's Shenzhou spacecraft marks an important step in this program, but raises more questions than it answers. At a superficial level, we can see the Shenzhou program advancing at a steady pace, its third mission coming just a little longer than the gap between Shenzhou 1 and 2.
Shenzhou Program Enjoys Growing Political Support
by Morris Jones
Sydney - Jan. 12, 2000
After a lengthy delay and a regular series of false starts, China has finally moved ahead with its enigmatic Shenzhou program. At the time of writing, the Shenzhou 2 vehicle is orbiting the Earth, awaiting a return to Earth at an unspecified time. Many questions are being raised about this second vehicle, but after waiting so long for this mission to take place, the most obvious question that could be raised is why China decided to launch now.
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