by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Jul 22, 2008
Just when we thought that the plans for Shenzhou 7 were clearly defined, reportage in the Chinese media has complicated the situation. To be sure, the mission will still launch in October 2008 with three astronauts on board, and the first Chinese spacewalk will be conducted. But questions are again being raised about the spacesuits to be worn on the flight.
This subject seemed to be neatly resolved just weeks ago, when video footage of the suits was aired on Chinese television, and copied to YouTube.
This writer, along with other analysts, noted that the suits seemed to be very accurate clones of the Russian Orlan spacesuits, used for spacewalks from the International Space Station (see "Suits for Shenzhou" by Morris Jones on Spacedaily.com - link below).
This didn't surprise us, given the way that China has previously copied its in-cabin suits from the Russian Sokol suits.
But does China have a second type of EVA spacesuit in its Shenzhou wardrobe? Earlier Chinese media reports made vague remarks about different modes of spacewalking, comparing the self-contained spacesuit (like a Russian Orlan) to a suit with its life-support consumables carried by an umbilical cord. The latter type of suit was used on American Gemini spacecraft for America's first spacewalks.
The reports seemed to hint that China was still debating the type of spacewalking practice to use. But this was far from being certain. Such reporting could have simply been the technical talk of an engineer, giving a background briefing on spaceflight to an inexperienced reporter. When the video of China's Orlan-style suits emerged, speculation on anything else seemed moot.
Suddenly, the topic is back on the agenda. China Radio International has produced a print story on its English Web site, quoting a report from the newspaper Beijing Daily.
The report re-iterates some of the known facts about Shenzhou 7, but then goes on to state that "China has prepared two kinds of outer spacesuits for taikonauts for the spacewalk mission. One was made using China's own technologies, and another was bought from Russia. The country will make the final choice as the space mission nears."
Curiouser and curiouser. Like Alice, we have fallen into a Wonderland of strange possibilities. One realistic possibility is that we have simply encountered some garbled reporting. The very same article makes reference to a "special module, embedded between the return module and the orbital module". This seems unlikely.
There could be two hatches close together, one attached to the bell-shaped descent module (known here as the return module) and the other attached to the underside of the cylindrical orbital module, which will be used as an airlock on this mission.
Video footage of the Shenzhou 7 spacecraft shows no changes in the general spacecraft geometry. But calling the small gap between these two hatches on adjacent modules a special module is inaccurate.
If garbled reporting is responsible, the reporter could have confused the lightweight in-cabin suits worn by the astronauts during launch with the heavy suits used for spacewalking. But the article refers to the suits as "outer spacesuits", and speaks of making a "final choice". It's not clear if language difficulties or a lack of technical knowledge can explain away this section.
The issue of two different spacesuits also dovetails with the earlier debate over the different styles of life-support. Presumably, if an alternative Chinese spacesuit is available, it has a Gemini-style umbilical that carries oxygen and power.
No footage or pictures of such a suit have been released during the Shenzhou program. The Web does contain some early photographs of Chinese spacesuits from the 1970s that were probably designed for the aborted Shuguang space capsule. But China is unlikely to drag these out of the storerooms, given their technological advances in the meantime.
It seems unusual that China would not have finalized its EVA suit plans at this stage in the mission planning. What could cause this uncertainty? Have there been technical issues plaguing one or both suit designs?
The identification of one of the suits as "bought from Russia" is a frank, if overdue admission of where the technology really came from. But it also suggests that this could be a source of discord. Has Russia objected to the use of the technology by the Chinese? Have Russian concerns placed other Sino-Russian space projects in jeopardy? Nobody is saying anything at an official or a public level.
The introduction of a new spacesuit at the last minute could complicate mission planning and training. But China may have no choice if it does not want to delay the launch of Shenzhou 7.
It's worth remembering that this mission is already roughly a year overdue from its originally expected launch date in 2007. China will need to reliably demonstrate its access to spacesuit technology if it hopes to become a major player in human spaceflight.
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian spaceflight analyst and writer. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. His next book, "The Adventure of Mars", is being released in August.
Suits for Shenzhou
The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
China News from SinoDaily.com
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