The Phantom Yuhangyuans
Sydney - Apr 28, 2003
Recent months have seen a new hobby emerge within the aerospace community: Yuhangyuan spotting. Curiosity about China's first group of astronauts has grown stronger as the first crewed mission of China's Shenzhou spacecraft draws closer.
It's understandable. The Shenzhou program is the only debut of a new human spaceflight program in more than 40 years. No other nation has joined Russia or the United Stated in developing its own crewed vehicle since 1961.
The world's first astronauts and cosmonauts were celebrities as well as explorers. The United States staged a lavish debut for its original seven Mercury astronauts long before they flew in space, but the Soviet Union was more guarded in its approach.
The identity of Yuri Gagarin, our planet's first space traveller, was only revealed once the cosmonaut was in orbit. However, Gagarin's celebrity was no less than his American counterparts once he returned to the ground.
Secrecy within the Soviet space program was extremely tight, and much of the detail of its early years could only be officially revealed following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The painstaking research work of space historians (mostly in the USA and United Kingdom) yielded much information in the years that followed Yuri's flight, but the veil of censorship still held some details back.
A similar situation seems to be unfolding with the Chinese program. China's careful management of information on the Shenzhou program and the astronauts who will fly with it is reminiscent of Soviet approaches. It allows China to play some facts to its own advantage, but it can also backfire on occasion.
Chinese officials have stated that they intend to launch an astronaut in October or November of this year, with the latter month being a more likely target. Media statements have also revealed that there is a cadre of astronaut trainees selected from China's fighter pilots.
We know for sure that all are male, and are in excellent physical and mental health. Beyond this, we really don't know anything else for sure.
Photographs of Chinese astronauts in spacesuits have been circulated in the aerospace media, along with clues to their identities. Recently, a list of names appeared in a German magazine, prompting discussion on the Internet.
But doubts have been raised about how much trust can be placed in these reports. What is their original source? Are they official, or just rumours? Are the reported names corruptions or misrepresentations of their actual Chinese names? Do the names correspond any individuals in the photographs? Have the nominated individuals really been shortlisted for the first flight? Are they really astronaut trainees anyway?
This may seem to be an extreme application of doubt, but reports on basic facts about Shenzhou have always suffered from problems. Sometimes, facts have been suppressed.
Often, mistakes are made by translators or correspondents. We really don't know if China has even decided who its first man in space will be at the present, or when such a decision will be made.
A lack of precise information on an important topic naturally generates speculation. For decades, space analysts have been plagued with recurring stories of "phantom cosmonauts" who have allegedly never been officially acknowledged.
The most common tale involves a secret mission into space carried out by the son of a prominent Soviet aircraft designer, which resulted in his injury or death. This mission was supposed to have taken place before the flight of Yuri Gagarin, but news of the ill-fated flight was kept secret for propaganda reasons.
There is plenty of evidence to discredit this tale and preserve Yuri Gagarin in his rightful place in history, but a good urban legend always refuses to die. I have been contacted by journalists to find out if phantom cosmonaut stories are true, but some sections of the media won't let the facts get in the way of a good story.
The United States has maintained a very open policy with its human spaceflight program, happily serving information to the public that funds its flights. But even this openness has not been enough to protect it from crazy rumours and innuendo.
The concept that Apollo astronauts never went to the moon has been popular since the flight of Apollo 11 took place, and it seems to be experiencing a wave of resurgence at the present.
It's natural to expect that tall tales will emerge about the Chinese astronaut program in the future. There will be much speculation about the identities and backgrounds of the astronauts selected for the Shenzhou program. Names of individuals will be thrown around between observers as they try to assign them places. Some may be astronauts, but some may work in other areas of the Shenzhou program.
It's possible that some of the trainees originally selected for the program will not fly in space, and this will further complicate investigations. There are also doubts about the exact number of people in the astronaut corps. Some reports say 12, others say 14. Simple counting of names could produce confusion.
Two Chinese individuals are reported to have trained at Russia's cosmonaut training centre in the nineteen nineties. These men then returned to China to help train China's astronauts. But are the two Russian-trained men members of the current astronaut corps? This could be one way of resolving the confusion over numbers, but it's also possible that the astronaut corps has been expanded or shrunk.
China will find itself wrestling with phantom yuhangyuan stories in the future. The stories will be partially generated from a lack of precise information, but no amount of official disclosure can entirely stop them.
It is hoped that somewhere inside the Shenzhou program, historians and archivists are working to record these events. One day, China's leadership will probably decide to reveal the history of Shenzhou to the world.
Precise documentation of events as they happen is the best way to produce accurate records and dispel inaccurate rumours. The value of such record keeping will grow even more apparent as China's first astronaut is launched into orbit.
Dr Morris Jones is a Sydney-based journalist and lecturer. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail..com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.
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