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The Next Generation Of Yuhangyuans

File photo: A Chinese Yuhangyuan in training.
by Morris Jones
Melbourne, Australia (SPX) Jun 19, 2006
As China draws plans for more ambitious space missions, one essential element seems to remain the same: China's pool of yuhangyuans, or astronauts, has apparently stood unchanged for more than eight years.

The original group of men selected to fly China's Shenzhou spacecraft has reportedly experienced no attrition or addition since its makeup was settled in early 1998.

It's a remarkable record of consistency. Crew candidate lists were not this stable in the early years of the Soviet or U.S. space programs. How does China do it?

To a certain degree, there is probably much credit to be granted to the original selection process. China apparently has formed a team of highly competent people who have given no cause for dismissal from the astronaut corps.

The astronauts themselves presumably value their esteemed status, and don't want to leave. There also is the possibility that the astronauts, all of whom are military officers, do not have the authority to resign from their roles.

Training people for spaceflight is expensive. It makes economic sense to invest this training in a small group of individuals, and gain a return on investment by launching them on missions. China's modest rate of launches suggests the current pool of astronauts is more than enough to satisfy crew requirements, and give plenty of redundancy.

It also would seem China has paid close attention to the safety of its astronauts. Several of the world's earliest astronauts and cosmonauts died in accidents ranging from fires inside spacecraft cabins to air crashes.

So far, there have been no reports of serious injuries or deaths among China's astronauts. These men presumably would maintain their flying skills with regular sessions in fighter jets, but skill and safety seem to have worked in their favor.

So, the current group of Chinese astronauts seems fit to carry out the currently announced sequence of missions, which culminate with a triple-docking in orbit in 2010.

China hasn't announced any mission plans beyond this date, and probably will develop its flight plans on an ad-hoc basis as goals are accomplished. But China eventually will need to revise its astronaut corps. Fresh candidates should be introduced for the missions of the next decade.

The current pool of Chinese astronauts strongly resembles the first batch of Soviet and American space travelers. All are highly experienced fighter pilots. All are men. The use of all-pilot crews in the first phase of a human spaceflight program is understandable, given the risks. China is still testing both its ability to carry out human operations in space, and the performance of its crews and hardware.

China will need to diversify its crew in order to leverage fully the advantages of placing humans into space. This will happen when Shenzhou, and any other new spacecraft associated with the Shenzhou program, have demonstrated their reliability.

China should consider adding scientists and engineers to the next batch of astronaut candidates. This would enhance the value of space station operations, and potentially help any long-term plans for circumlunar missions.

The division of crew members into command/pilot roles and mission specialists, which is so pronounced in the U.S. space shuttle program, could influence such a process.

Women also should be considered for the program, as both pilots and mission specialists.

When will China decide to introduce its next generation of astronauts? Given the current state of the program and the astronauts, there's probably no sense of urgency, but a new set of evaluations probably should begin in the next two years.

This will give enough time for an exhaustive set of selection rounds, followed by the training necessary for flight. It also will allow the new astronauts plenty of time to work alongside China's existing batch of astronauts.

The next generation probably will find themselves flying alongside members of the Class of 1998, some of whom will be making second trips into space. A gradual meshing of recruitment cohorts in both missions and training would ensure that practical skills are passed on.

At some point in the next decade, some of China's first space travelers probably will experience honorable discharges from active duty as astronauts. They could become trainers or managers within the Shenzhou program. Some of them could go on to careers in government, academia or industry.

Yang Liwei probably will always retain some official connection with the program, and probably continue his current role as one of China's most interesting global goodwill ambassadors. For the moment, it seems China's existing astronauts have their roles cut out for them, as they await their upcoming missions.

Dr. Morris Jones is a lecturer at Deakin University, Australia. He has covered the Shenzhou program since 1999.

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