by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Jun 13, 2008
China's state-run media is finally unveiling more details on the upcoming Shenzhou 7 mission. A report from Xinhua, the principal Chinese news agency, has helped to resolve some of the outstanding questions of the mission, but hasn't entirely outlined the mission plan.
Shenzhou 7 will make history by carrying out China's first spacewalk. This will be an amazing mission, but, as this writer has lamented in several earlier articles, it has been hard to glean solid information on the flight.
Xinhua has confirmed that Shenzhou 7 will launch in October 2008. This was widely suspected from previous reports, but the latest update suggests that the mission is on-schedule. Our long wait for this mission, which comes roughly three years after the last Chinese astronaut launch, is almost over.
In an earlier article ("Three Rocketeers for Shenzhou"), I speculated on the training program being used to select a crew of three astronauts for the mission. China has now confirmed that six astronauts are in training, but it is not clear if they are split into two distinct crews. It's possible that there is a prime and a back-up astronaut for each of the three seats and mission roles.
The final crew could be any combination of primes and back-ups. This would be more flexible than tying the candidates together in only two teams, which could lead to a problem with a single astronaut disqualifying the entire crew from flying.
The article does not mention the involvement of the other members of China's 14-strong astronaut corps. It's possible that they were assigned support roles long ago, but it's also possible that they have been ruled out of the final six through competitive elimination.
A photo released with the story shows two astronauts training simultaneously in EVA suits on a mock-up of the Shenzhou spacecraft. The astronauts are assisted by divers as they climb around inside a water tank, simulating weightlessness. One astronaut seems to be emerging from the hatch of the spacecraft's Orbital Module, while another clings to handrails on the outside of the module.
This correlates with an interesting note in the story, stating that "two of the astronauts...would prepare for the historic spacewalk...The remaining taikonaut was expected to perform scientific experiments."
These statements, and the photograph, lend support to a theory I have previously discussed. It would seem that two astronauts will don extravehicular spacesuits, and both will be exposed to the vacuum of space.
However, it's possible that only one will actually step beyond the spacecraft's interior. The second astronaut would assist the spacewalker, and possibly photograph him. This second astronaut could end up making a partial egress, placing his upper body outside the hatch to watch over his colleague.
It's also worth reiterating that the spacesuits used in the photograph are the same types shown in Chinese television news footage, and strongly resemble Russian Orlan spacesuits. China has claimed that the suits are locally produced, but the influence of Russian technology is undeniable.
The third astronaut will presumably spend the entire spacewalking phase of the mission in the Descent Module, which will remain pressurized. He will almost certainly not wear an Orlan-style EVA suit, but he will probably don his in-flight pressure suit during this dangerous time.
Dr Morris Jones is a Sydney-based space writer and Shenzhou analyst. 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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