By Morris Jones
Geelong, Australia (SPX) Sep 08, 2008
After a few days of rumours and conflicting stories, China has finally announced the launch timeframe for its next manned space mission. The Shenzhou 7 spacecraft will lift off somewhere between September 25 and 30. It will carry three astronauts into orbit, and stage China's first spacewalk.
This is an unusual and somewhat unexpected development. For months, we have been expecting and October launch, with rumours tipping a mid-October flight. China maintained this position consistently in its media reports for a long time, never wavering from this claim.
Reports of a change in date began to appear in early September, and were carried by several mainland Chinese news sources. The reports soon trickled through to the international media. But the stories were quickly challenged. Within hours of the original report appearing, China Daily produced a new story that cast the reports in doubt.
The story quoted an unidentified Chinese military officer, who described the original reports as "not reliable." The revised story also propagated through Chinese and international media channels. What was going on?
When the first cycle of stories ended, it seemed that a hapless journalist had filed an inaccurate report, and China wanted to set the record straight. But a new round of stories in China's state-run media has again claimed that the launch will be in September.
The new launch window is narrower and more specific than the original claim, which stated Shenzhou 7 would fly anywhere between September 17 and October 1. But the confirmation of a change, previously discredited in official reports, is curious.
It would seem that the latest reports are credible, given the time, and presumably, the oversight that has played out. But why was there so much confusion? And why has China decided to change the launch date in the first place?
It's possible that China has simply decided to launch because its spacecraft is ready. The Shenzhou 7 mission has been in preparation for a long time. An incredible gap of roughly three years has passed since the Shenzhou 6 mission, which flew in 2005.
But China seems to have adopted an unrushed timetable to its space launches. A gap of two years passed between the launch of Shenzhou 5, China's first manned spaceflight, in 2003, and the next mission. China has also established a pattern of October launches. Shenzhous 5 and 6 both launched in this month.
Media statements claimed that the launch time was linked to calm seas, which allowed China's fleet of space tracking ships to remain stable. This seems plausible. China has been stating for quite some time that the latest mission would also launch in October, and kept saying this in recent weeks.
The abrupt announcement of a change in launch date, with the new launch slated for just weeks after the announcement, is suspicious. It smacks of sudden interference in a carefully planned schedule.
There would seem to be no overt technical reason for changing the launch date, even though one report claimed that launching before October 1 offered "the best launch window", a strange claim for an Earth orbital mission with no rendezvous. The "best launch window" could have nothing to do with weather or engineering.
But politics seems to be a likely cause. China has found itself at the centre of global attention, thanks to a very opulent Olympic Games. The Games have also boosted the profile of China's Communist Party to its own population, and stirred national pride.
The launch date will take place after the Paralympics end on September 17, further strengthening the Olympic connection. October 1 is also China's national day, making the space mission a nice bridge between two major nationalistic events.
Elsewhere in the world, trouble is brewing. Russian incursions into disputed territories in Europe have held global attention for weeks. In Asia, complications are developing in negotiations with North Korea. China also has long-standing territorial disputes with several nations in the region, especially with regard to islands. Thailand is in the throes of civil unrest, Myanmar remains tragic, and Japan has lost another Prime Minister.
As a global power, China craves respect and influence. Its space program is powerful symbol of its economic strength. Not even the industrial powerhouses of Europe and Japan have developed their own human spaceflight capabilities.
China can certainly surf its next space launch on the wave of publicity that the Olympics have generated. It was interesting to see two spacewalking astronauts appear in the opening ceremony, which shows how highly China regards this achievement. It can also remind diplomats and governments that its voice should be heard as the international community confronts this growing list of problems.
There's plenty of reason for the change, but why was the publicity handled so badly?
The muddled stories could reveal a potential conflict between China's politburo and its rocket scientists. Chinese government officials may have demanded a last-minute change in the Shenzhou 7 launch date, buoyed by the attention the Olympics generated, and knowing the propaganda value of the flight. But they may not have understood the complex logistics required for a space launch.
They could have faced resistance from the scientists and engineers behind the program, who would be concerned about changing their plans. The earlier reports suggest that a dispute was taking place, but the politburo has finally won.
Political interference in the launching of space missions has sometimes been risky in the past. Hopefully, the mission will not experience any problems caused by the revised launch date.
Dr Morris Jones is the author of "The Adventure of Mars", now available in bookstores. He is available for media interviews on Shenzhou. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.
the missing link The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
China News from SinoDaily.com
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