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Countdown to Shenzhou

It has long been suggested that October of this year would be the most likely time for a crewed mission, ostensibly for political purposes. But recent statements from Chinese officials have suggested Shenzhou could fly later than this. Why?
by Morris Jones
Sydney - Jul 16, 2003
The first crewed mission of China's Shenzhou spacecraft is approaching. Years of waiting for this historic flight have been reduced to a countdown of months. When will China finally decide to launch?

The weeks following the landing of Shenzhou 4 in January this year were relatively quiet in terms of media coverage. This was billed as the final test mission before China's first astronauts would ride a Long March 2F into orbit.

We saw extensive coverage of Shenzhou 4 during its launch, orbital mission and landing, which gives credibility to the claim of a successful flight. Shenzhou was essentially debugged. It seemed that China simply needed to assemble another spacecraft, add a crew, and launch.

Of course, information on Shenzhou is still as heavily restricted as it was in 1999, when the program was officially unveiled. We can't see all the technical issues, budgetary guidelines and political agendas that would certainly influence the program.

If China felt truly pressed to send an astronaut into space as soon as possible, it could have launched a crewed mission by now. But this hasn't happened. We are no longer experiencing an Olympic-style space race between superpowers, and there's no need to rush.

It has long been suggested that October of this year would be the most likely time for a crewed mission, ostensibly for political purposes. But recent statements from Chinese officials have suggested Shenzhou could fly later than this. Why?

Observers have expected October launches for Shenzhou test missions since it first flight, but no mission has ever taken off in this month. It seems that Shenzhou is more decoupled from national celebrations than some people would expect. Celebrations of the Lunar New Year prompt fireworks on the ground, but they have also failed to inspire a Shenzhou launch.

It was commonplace for the Soviet Union to time its launches for events such as Communist Party Congresses, national anniversaries and even foreign policy initiatives.

But the strategy can backfire, as Nikita Khruschev discovered. Models of Soviet Mars probes, carried on his historic tour of the USA, were concealed after these missions failed. It's possible that Chinese authorities do not want a failed launch to spoil any significant occasion. But it's more likely that Shenzhou has its own timetable, immune to other events.

Shenzhou was curiously exploited when China and other nations experienced a crisis from the SARS virus. A wire story, circulated on SpaceDaily and other news outlets, proudly declared that the epidemic would do nothing to halt the progress of the upcoming Shenzhou mission.

It was a nice way to boost morale in a depressing time, and also a reminder that propaganda has always been an important part of any nation's human spaceflight program.

The pacing of Shenzhou missions at intervals that average out to roughly once per year is interesting. It suggests budgetary locations and bureaucratic planning are probably the most significant influences on the program at this stage. A launch in November, which is possible, would give plenty of time for production of all the various components and sub-systems required.

It's also possible that Shenzhou's engineers are suffering from a slight case of stage fright. Despite the successes of the test missions, the importance and publicity attached to the first flight with a human crew must be daunting.

Systems that are probably ready to fly would be checked more thoroughly, and repeatedly, than for any previous launch. The tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia this year, and the abnormal re-entry of the Soyuz TMA-1 mission that followed, are probably also giving Shenzhou's engineers reason to be wary.

Despite the vague and often conflicting reports that have accompanied Shenzhou, one trend remains. China seems committed to the idea of launching before the end of 2003. On that basis, we won't have long to wait.

Dr Morris Jones is a lecturer in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of Wollongong, Australia. Email Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.

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China Keeps Its Sight On Long-Term Mars Exploration
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China would carry out long-term Mars exploration in four stages that might lead to the eventual human exploration of the red planet, an article from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) publication Science Times said on June 13.

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