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Good Grades For Shenzhou 7
by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Sep 29, 2008

back to the future...

The completion of the Shenzhou 7 space mission has been a major achievement for China. The principal goal of performing China's first spacewalk was accomplished without major problems.

Observers are calling the flight a success, and for good reason. If we look at the mission more closely, China has gained more from the flight than just a spacewalk. China's astronauts and mission planners have earned good grades on several points.

Firstly, China has now completed three manned space missions without experiencing catastrophic failures. Rumours of problems on China's first mission have circulated, and there could have been some difficulties on the second. The success of the third mission suggests that China has gradually debugged its relatively new spacecraft, and can expect a fairly high level of reliability on future missions.

Placing three astronauts on board the spacecraft was challenging to the logistics and also the management of mission activities. Apart from the need for more consumables, the astronauts have less room, and must conduct their movements and tasks with a high level of organization. China has again mastered this skill, which will be essential on the upcoming space station missions.

China has also demonstrated the ability to depressurize the Orbital Module of the spacecraft, used as an airlock on this flight. Hatches have been opened, closed, exposed to space, and opened again. Some minor problems were experienced with the exterior hatch of the Orbital Module, but does not seem to be a serious issue.

China's locally produced spacesuit has also been shown to work. The assembly of this suit on board the spacecraft was surprising, but it shows that China could probably conduct maintenance and repairs of its spacesuits during missions. This will be critical on space stations.

Communications with Shenzhou 7 were much better than for previous missions, thanks to the use of a new data-relay satellite in geosynchronous orbit. Coverage of future space station missions will be more continuous.

Previous reports had indicated that the small camera satellite carried on the mission would be used to cover the spacewalk. Shortly before liftoff, it was confirmed that this satellite would not be used for this purpose, and would only be deployed from the spacecraft after the spacewalk had finished.

Was there a sudden change of plans? China could have been concerned about the safety of its spacewalker. Having another spacecraft floating nearby could have been hazardous. Alternatively, this could have been the real plan since the beginning, and the earlier reportage could have been garbled.

The sub-satellite has given China experience in formation flying with the Shenzhou spacecraft, and later with the discarded Orbital Module that remained in space after the astronauts returned.

This will help China with the rendezvous and dockings to be performed by the next set of Shenzhou missions. It also has other applications, such as sending satellites to inspect other spacecraft for civilian or military purposes.

While the spacewalk was the major goal of the flight, China has proven its capabilities on several different spaceflight tasks. This has advanced the Shenzhou program a lot more than the Shenzhou 6 mission did in 2005.

+ Dr Morris Jones is an Australian spaceflight analyst. He is the author of "The Adventure of Mars" and "When Men Walked on the Moon."


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