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Suits For Shenzhou
by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) May 05, 2008

The Chinese spacesuits designed for the EVA are dead ringers for the Russian Orlan suits.

In the last months before China's first spacewalk, facts about the mission are slowly trickling out. China has been coy about releasing precise information on the spacesuit to be used or the tethering system to be used for the spacewalker. Other details, such as the number of astronauts who will be exposed to vacuum in the orbital module, are also hard to find in official statements.

But we can at least draw some inferences from television broadcasts in China's state-run media. Several of these have been clipped and posted to YouTube. Using "Shenzhou" or "China Astronaut" as search keywords will reveal them.

China Central Television (CCTV) has featured stories on the upcoming flight that show hardware being used in training. We have seen Chinese astronauts strapped into descent module simulators and rolled around on the ground, along with tests of the escape system for the launch tower. The latter looks particularly fun.

The astronauts slide downwards in expandable fabric tubes, reminiscent of food passing down an esophagus! Your correspondent has tried this system in building evacuation tests, and wonders why it isn't used more often for recreational purposes.

The Shenzhou 7 spacecraft has also been shown in news broadcasts. True to the artwork that's been previously published, the Orbital Module features no solar panels. The screened footage also showed a small amount of equipment at the front of the Orbital Module.

A smallish rectangular box sits next to two spheres. It's possible that this is the previously discussed miniature satellite that will possibly be used to photograph the spacewalk.

The spheres are presumably gas tanks, and could hold propellant for the satellite. Alternatively, they could hold nitrogen and oxygen to re-pressurize the orbital module after the spacewalk. Possibly, more gear will be added to the module before the mission actually flies.

But the crowning revelation of the video clips is the EVA training. Astronauts are shown working inside a large indoor pool, like their Russian and American counterparts. The Chinese spacesuits designed for the EVA are dead ringers for the Russian Orlan suits!

Your correspondent has noted this resemblance in previously published artwork, but this shows the real thing. The suit is Chinese-built and probably has some uniquely Chinese features, but the Russian influence on the overall Shenzhou program just looks even stronger.

Even the undersuits and headsets worn by the Chinese astronauts look like Russian ones. Years ago, it was shown that the lightweight spacesuits worn by Chinese astronauts inside the Shenzhou spacecraft are also clearly inspired by the Russian Sokol in-flight suits.

The Russian Orlan suits feature huge backpacks that open like refrigerator doors, allowing a cosmonaut to enter from the rear. The Chinese suits also seem to feature this. This suggests that there's a completely internal life-support system, with air tanks in the backpack.

So China would presumably not need a thick umbilical to keep the spacewalker supplied with oxygen and power from the Shenzhou spacecraft. In previous articles, I have noted that Chinese statements have been ambiguous on this subject. It wasn't clear if there would be a life-support umbilical for the spacewalker or a simple tether. Perhaps there will be an intermediate tether system that supplies power or communications.

The EVA training pool is contains a simplistic mockup of the Shenzhou orbital module, with its large circular hatch pointed upwards. The rest of the spacecraft doesn't appear in the mockup. Presumably, the astronaut won't need to float over to these sections, and they're probably off-limits.

There is a box positioned at the top of the orbital module that looks like a camera, and it's pointing at the space in front of the hatch. Also visible is a handrail at the side of the hatch, and what appears to be a second handrail along the side of the orbital module.

The information gleaned from watching CCTV news clips contains no major surprises, and confirms many of the earlier predictions made for the spacewalk. But many questions are still unanswered.

Dr Morris Jones has covered the Shenzhou program for SpaceDaily and other publications since 1999. Email Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Hat tip to Dominic Phelan for finding certain footage mentioned in this article.


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