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Shenzhou Program Enjoys Growing Political Support

Providing much needed political patronage at the launch of Shenzhou 2 was China's defence minister Chi Haotian. Photo by Robyn Beck Copyright AFP 2001.
by Morris Jones
Sydney - Jan. 12, 2001
After a lengthy delay and a regular series of false starts, China has finally moved ahead with its enigmatic Shenzhou program. At the time of writing, the Shenzhou 2 vehicle is orbiting the Earth, awaiting a return to Earth at an unspecified time. Many questions are being raised about this second vehicle, but after waiting so long for this mission to take place, the most obvious question that could be raised is why China decided to launch now.

The Shenzhou program is strongly tied to the nation's political leaders, and propaganda is one of its principal goals, at least in the short term. It appears that the previous mission was supposed to lift off in time for China's national day celebrations in October 1999, but technical problems caused the launch date to slip to November.

Is there anything special about the timing of Shenzhou 2? Not really. China has almost completed its preparations to enter the World Trade Organization, and relations with Taiwan seem surprisingly calm at the moment.

The flight is unlikely to have any influence on the incoming administration of US President-elect George W. Bush. If China had wanted to make a statement with the timing of this launch, it could have waited a couple of weeks, and flown Shenzhou to celebrate the lunar new year.

The most likely reason for the launch at this time is that, finally, everything is ready. Details from insiders are sketchy, but it seems reasonable to believe that the Shenzhou program is plagued by technical problems, funding shortages, and political interference.

Difficulties in any one of these three principal areas would be enough to delay the program, and managing to fight off all of them at the same time would be tricky. If mission planners had finally found themselves in a position to send the vehicle aloft, they would probably want to launch as quickly as possible, before economics or politics turned unfavorable.

Eat Your Greens
Shenzhou is also probably surfing on an unusually large wave of domestic spaceflight activity. In recent months, China has launched several indigenous satellites for its own use, including the Beidou navigation system.

It is possible that Shenzhou was sold through political and bureaucratic channels as part of a package deal that included these other spacecraft, which will directly assist China's economy and industries.

Communist Party officials would be more likely to approve Shenzhou 2 if the overall launch package delivered short-term benefits to the nation.

Space planners would have approval for Shenzhou, but would still need to "eat their greens" before they could have dessert. The highly practical, but less sexy, payloads would need to be launched first, with a Shenzhou launch permitted after these spacecraft were safely in orbit.

Shenzhou's launch time could have been influenced by the overall rate of progress of these other spacecraft, but it's also possible that Shenzhou's technical problems were taking longer to resolve than expected.

If waiting for the main course to digest set a lower limit on the launch time, then the deployment of China's tracking fleet could have been an upper limit. A launch for what observers generally agree is a funding-challenged project could have been made cheaper by piggybacking the tracking expenses on a previously scheduled fleet deployment.

China's tracking fleet was already at sea for the Beidou 2 launch in December 2000, so waiting a few extra weeks to return would have been much cheaper than a separate deployment.

In my last article for Space Daily (Cobwebs on the Launchpad, December 18 2000), I suggested that China could have been waiting to complete its new land-based tracking station in Namibia before launching Shenzhou 2. This is due to be completed later this year.

If planners were prepared to wait more than a year for the second mission, why not wait a few months more? Possibly, the attraction of an opportunistic piggyback tracking opportunity was too great to resist.

Having considered the timing of the flight, let's take a look at the vehicle itself. From the video footage supplied to news agencies, the Long March 2F rocket that launched Shenzhou 2 looks no different from the one that launched the first Shenzhou mission. But is it?

A report broadcast by CNN claimed that the rocket features "improved troubleshooting and safety systems", but did not elaborate on this. It is not clear if this refers to potential improvements to the crew escape system or better in-flight monitoring systems for the rocket motors.

These "improvements" could have appeared on other recent Long March vehicles, or they could be exclusive to the Long March 2F. The Long March is a reasonably reliable vehicle, but by Russian and Western standards, it has not achieved a performance record that would earn it the title of "man rated".

China is probably conscious of this, and is probably hoping that a few minor improvements will make up for this gap.

No photographs of the Shenzhou 2 spacecraft, either on the ground or in orbit, have been released so far. But computer graphics of the vehicle yield some clues.

Externally, the vehicle seems no different from what observers had expected. The vehicle is confirmed as sporting two sets of solar panels, and a strange apparatus on the front of its orbital module that is understood to be a docking system.

The imagery depicts a vehicle no different from the small Shenzhou models that have been appearing in various Western aerospace circles (see Shenzhou: A Model Program by Morris Jones, Space Daily November 15 2000). But there's no guarantee that either the models or the imagery are an accurate depiction of the vehicle currently in orbit.

Chinese television broadcast images from mission control during the launch, and downlinked images of Shenzhou's on-board control panels can be seen in this footage. From the limited footage available, no changes in these panels could be detected, although this does not mean that China has not upgraded the cabin.

Probably the most significant change is that, unlike Shenzhou 1, this spacecraft carries an operational life-support system. China has claimed that animals are on board the spacecraft, without specifying their species or numbers.

Testing the habitability of Shenzhou would be their major function, but the animals could also be useful for biological experimentation in a broader sense. It would be interesting to see if a snake is on board, in honor of the imminent Chinese new year.

We also know that other sub-systems have been re-designed. Chinese statements suggest that a re-design of the spacecraft's wiring and the rearrangement of certain "controllers" has reduced the weight of the spacecraft by around 100 kilograms.

Although some changes were probably made to Shenzhou with experience gained from its first mission, it seems difficult to believe that the flight of Shenzhou 1 would be needed to prompt these ones.

A more logical explanation is that engineers who were no longer facing pressures to get a vehicle up as quickly as possible were free to develop a better system. The wiring of Shenzhou 1 may have been done quickly, not just from a design perspective, but in its physical installation.

As NASA has found in the management of its shuttle fleet, maintaining a complex wiring system in a spacecraft is a time-consuming and demanding task.

Shenzhou 1 may have been wired up in a simple but somewhat crude fashion that could be quickly performed and quickly checked. The latest version reflects the wishes to produce a better system for an operational spacecraft. With a 14 month delay between flights, engineers had plenty of time to improve it.

It's Alive!
In the weeks ahead, much speculation will be made about the performance of the Shenzhou 2 vehicle and the Shenzhou program. But the most important return from Shenzhou 2 is simply the fact that the program is still alive, and will probably continue to develop to the point of maturity.

This may seem obvious, but there has been no guarantee of the project's longevity. China has had at least one false start with its human spaceflight program, beginning work, then canceling the project.

The first Shenzhou mission may have been an engineering success, but its influence on China's overall image was minimal. This could have discouraged Communist Party officials who were hoping for a global gasp of admiration.

Having launched two missions, it will now be difficult for China to reduce the momentum that has built up, both locally and internationally.

It would seem that Shenzhou really does have friends in high places. Chinese media releases have spoken of Jiang Zemin's messages of congratulations to the workers behind it, but another detail I gleaned from CNN footage seems to have escaped widespread discussion.

Two prominent guests were in the Shenzhou mission control centre at the time of the launch. One was China's defence minister, who would seem to have a strong interest in the project.

Shenzhou could have been sold as a project with military potential, probably in the field of photoreconnaissance, as a means of bolstering its support base.

The second guest was Jiang Zemin's son, described in the report as a scientist and a businessman. His appearance at the launch is reminiscent of Nikita Khruschev's son, who worked for Soviet rocket pioneer Sergei Korolev, and probably provided a valuable political link for the well-being of Korolev's design bureau. Is a similar web of political support appearing in the Shenzhou program?

Morris Jones is a Sydney, Australia-based consultant and journalist. His email address is morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.

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China Opens 21st Century With Shenzhou-2 Launch
by Wei Long
Beijing - Jan. 12, 2001
China has kicked off the new century with the unmanned launch of Shenzhou-2 early Wednesday morning (Jan. 10). The symbolic and successful launch occurred at 1am Beijing Time (Jan. 9 17:00 UTC) for a mission that is expected to last seven days.

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