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Shenzhou 10 Returns Safely To Earth
by Dr Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Jun 26, 2013

File image of a Shenzhou landed

The safe return of the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft has resolved more questions about China's latest astronaut mission. Clearly, Shenzhou 10's expedition to the Tiangong 1 space laboratory has been successful. However, some mysteries remain about the events on this flight, and the overall direction for China's space program.

The most outstanding mystery surrounding Shenzhou 10 began long before the spacecraft was rolled out to the Launchpad. This is the strange media and public relations strategy that was apparent to analysts weeks before the mission began. China is notorious for its tight management of media access to its space program, and we did not expect a high level of openness for this mission.

However, it is obvious that there has been a major step backwards in terms of media access. The reportage on Shenzhou 10 stands in high contrast to the very good coverage provided for the Shenzhou 9 mission just a year earlier. Live television coverage of key events was either curtailed or entirely deleted. Why was this done? At face value, it seems that China lost more than it gained (if it gained anything at all) from the policy shift.

There was also a strange modus of identifying the crew. In an unusual pattern of disclosure, China confirmed that female astronaut Wang Yaping would be on the flight weeks before the countdown began. This was surprising, as crews for missions are normally kept officially secret until just before launch. At the same time, the identities of the two astronauts who would join her were not disclosed, and they were not officially named until less than a day before liftoff.

Although we were pleased to see Wang named for the flight and celebrated the publicity for her achievements, the uneven pattern of reportage was perplexing. Was there an internal political agenda at work? It's possible that naming Wang in public at an early stage would make it difficult to remove her from the mission later on. If this was an issue, does this suggest that there was still some uncertainty over the crew for the mission, with disputes over who would be aboard? This is a plausible theory.

We also have only a basic understanding of the tasks performed by the crew aboard the Tiangong module. The astronauts were docked there for roughly twelve days. The most visible activity performed on Tiangong was a science lesson for Chinese students performed by Wang Yaping. China has spoken in vague terms of medical and engineering experiments but supplied no real details. In this regard, the work on the Shenzhou 10 mission has been reported in the same way as for Shenzhou 9, which was also covered without specifics on the experiments. These mysteries have been compounded by the overall lack of media coverage of the mission.

We can speculate that most of the medical experiments performed by the Shenzhou 10 crew were tests on the health of the astronauts themselves. We can also speculate on why China was so tight-lipped with its media coverage.

This analyst contrasts the relatively good coverage of the Shenzhou 9 mission, launched just last year, with the near-blackout strategy this time. In this analyst's view, the change is probably connected to the rise of Xi Jinping as the President of China, and the reshuffle of other senior positions in China's leadership.

Mr Xi is a new leader who is still probably consolidating his credibility within the government and the public. As such, he could feel more vulnerable to bad news than his predecessor. The restricted coverage of Shenzhou 10 could be a defensive strategy to help downplay any mishaps that could reflect badly on Mr Xi. It would be unwise and unfair to blame any problems with the Shenzhou mission on Mr Xi, but as the leader of the nation, he is seen to be connected to any major state event.

This analyst hopes that the success of the Shenzhou 10 mission will inspire China to loosen its media policies for subsequent space missions, including the upcoming landing of a robot rover on the Moon. In time, the space program will probably prove its worth as an asset instead of a liability. And Mr Xi himself will probably grow more comfortable in his leadership.

As with most missions in China's fairly closed space program, some mysteries will take years to disclose, and some interesting stories will probably never leak out. There will hopefully be more disclosure when the International Astronautical Congress takes place in Beijing later this year. Mysteries may be frustrating, but they provide plenty of fodder for an international community of space analysts and fans.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst who has covered the Shenzhou program for since 1999. Email Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.


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