Wollongong, NSW (SPX) Mar 07, 2005
China's second manned space launch is expected within nine months. The Long March 2F launch vehicle and the Shenzhou 6 spacecraft it will carry are both apparently in their final stages of preparation.
But while we await the physical rollout of China's space hardware, a media rollout for this mission has been slowly taking place, like the steady advance of a mobile launchpad.
As usual, China has only released few details about its upcoming mission. We know it will be a two-person mission that will fly for about five days, although different figures about the exact mission duration have surfaced at different times. The crew of Shenzhou 6 will enter the large, cylindrical Orbital Module during their flight, and will carry out experiments.
China has confirmed that there will be no extravehicular activity on this flight, and we can also probably rule out rendezvous or docking with another spacecraft. There are no Orbital Modules from previous Shenzhou flights in orbit right now, and China has not discussed launching any target objects for rendezvous practice.
But China is probably focused on making Shenzhou 6 an "endurance" mission, demonstrating the capacities of the spacecraft and its crew to operate in space for an extended period.
China will feel more confident about attempting more complex missions once the basic durability of Shenzhou has been established. These missions will probably take place using the same mission length and crew size as Shenzhou 6, so the leap from one flight to the next should be relatively easy.
It is curious that China has elected to wait so long before attempting its second space mission. The flight of Yang Liwei on Shenzhou 5 was apparently successful, as far as external observers have been able to determine.
But two years will pass between Shenzhou 5 and Shenzhou 6. This is longer than the time taken between Shenzhou launched during its unmanned testing phase. What could cause such a delay?
The most likely factor is economics. The budget for a crewed mission could be higher than that of an unmanned flight. If funding allowed one unmanned mission every year, it's possible that the same budget has to be stretched further for the crewed phase of the program.
It's possible that Shenzhou's popularity with the Communist Party has diminshed, as the world didn't react with shock and awe at Yang Liwei's flight. Slim budgets could have been cut further as Beijing seeks more effective means of advancing its profile internationally.
But another significant factor seems to be engineering. Despite an extensive series of modifications during the testing phase, and a successful manned mission, China has not finished tinkering with the design of Shenzhou.
China has announced modifications such as improved spacesuits that can be removed in-flight, an important consideration on a long mission. But recently, it also announced changes to the Long March 2F's safety subsystems. The rocket that launches Shenzhou 6 will apparently carry a "fire security system" on the escape tower for the rocket.
As usual, such a vague remark could be interpreted in a variety of ways. Does this mean that better fail-safes have been added to prevent the accidental arming or firing of the escape rockets?
Has the control system for activating the launch escape system been streamlined to enable a faster ejection of the crew? Is this a fire extinguisher that will quell external blazes to allow the crew to escape on the launchpad? There's no way to tell for sure.
A less ambiguous improvement is the addition of a camera on the final stage of the rocket, that will transmit imagery of the vehicle during launch. China has stated that this will allow engineers to see that this crucial phase of the mission has been carried out successfully.
In the event that serious damage is detected, one could assume that Shenzhou would activate its launch escape tower for a sub-orbital return, or perform a one-orbit abort and quickly return to Earth.
The new "Shenzhou-cam" could be a reaction to lingering fears brought on by the Columbia tragedy. China could be concerned over the possibility that Shenzhou or its launcher could be damaged by falling debris during the rough, vibration-plagued launch.
Then again, placing cameras on launch vehicles is very trendy right now. What started as a gritty engineering exercise has made space launches like extreme sports, with close-up views. China knows that real imagery of Shenzhou flying off into orbit will be more exciting than a computer simulation.
China has also made vague references to a "minor heartache" suffered by Yang Liwei soon after liftoff. Presumably, this is just a reference to spacesickess developing as the body adjusts to weightlessness.
This is a common complaint among space travelers, and it's not surprising that Yang experienced it. But a statement in People's Daily cryptically states that the "interior design of Shenzhou VI this time would hopefully improve such situation."
Has something changed on the inside? This could be a reference to conditions inside the Orbital Module, which could be set out to give better orientation to the eyes and body than the Descent Module.
But have other changes taken place, such as up-down colour patterns, or covers on the windows to prevent accidental glimpses of the horizon at a strange angle? Another mystery awaits an answer.
Possibly the most significant question waiting a response is who will crew Shenzhou 6. We know that the crew will be taken from the members of China's astronaut corps, and that groups have already been paired-off as potential crews.
China has announced that the crew will be selected on a competitive basis shortly before the mission. But it's unlikely that Yang Liwei will fly on this mission. China will be keen to give more people spaceflight experience, and will also probably not want to risk the life of a national hero.
Memories of the demise of Yuri Gagarin are probably strong. The identities of each "pairing" have not been disclosed, but only ten astronauts are taking part in this process. Have some members of the astronaut corps been retired, or reassigned to other duties within the Shenzhou program?
Some of these questions will probably be answered in the near future, but China will need to further improve its public relations strategy and its handling of the media.
Without this, much of its spaceflight achievements will remain unreported in the general press. A live telecast of the launch of Shenzhou 6 is surely called for, at the very least.
University of Wollongong
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