China on the cusp of its first human spaceflight

Posted: October 7, 2003

When the long-awaited event will be announced, very few know. Very few know the identity or details of the passenger(s) and exact flight plan for the mission. But many are aware of the importance and prestige associated with what is expected to occur in a matter of days.

For over four decades, nations wanting human access to the high frontier have been at the whim of the United States and Russia. The addition of a third nation -- China -- probably will not change anything for quite a while. After all, it is unlikely their military-run space program will launch international space travelers anytime in the near future.

An artist's concept of Shenzhou. Image by Simon Zajc.
What is known about the milestone mission does not amount to much. Reports from China have indicated that the launch of Shenzhou 5 aboard a Long March 2F rocket could occur immediately after the Chinese communist party central committee meeting reportedly scheduled from October 11-14, according to the pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po newspaper.

The number of yuhangyuans, or Chinese astronauts -- also widely known as taikonauts -- aboard Shenzhou 5 for the historic flight is one of the many questions still left unanswered. The Shenzhou spacecraft can support a crew of three and has flown unmanned test flights for up to a week in the past. But some informed speculation among experts is that the first flight will only feature a single crewman on a voyage that will last just under a day.

"They will keep it simple at their best," said Chen Lan, an expert on the Chinese space program who runs an online news web site on the subject called "Go Taikonauts".

Fourteen Chinese military pilots have been put through a training regimen for the opportunity to fly in space. Two of these trainees traveled to Star City, Russia, the home of that nation's manned space program, to train with cosmonauts.

Those two -- Wu Jie and Li Qinglong -- are believed by many to be the frontrunners for the slot(s) available on Shenzhou 5. A dozen others are waiting in the wings to fly on subsequent missions in the years to come.

Chen Lan is predicting a one-day flight with a crew of just one yuhangyuan, likely to be either Wu Jie or Li Qinglong. A third candidate is also on the short list, reports from China have indicated.

The most popular forecasted launch date at the current time -- October 15 -- comes just a day after the high-level communist party meeting referenced by the Wen Wei Po.

Despite what might appear to be the most plausible scenario for the flight of Shenzhou 5, caution should be taken when attempting to decipher clues and sift through reports of possible launch dates.

Both the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft and the Long March 2F rocket tagged for the celebrated launch have been at the Jiuquan launching center in China's Gansu province for several months. The fourteen yuhangyuan candidates reportedly arrived at Jiuquan late last month for final preparations and hands-on training opportunities.

Speculation about just how much the Chinese government will reveal about the largely military-run program has also been widespread. Phoenix TV -- a television outlet based in Hong Kong -- reported Tuesday that the government had decided upon an October 15 launch date and that the entire mission would be televised both domestically and internationally, according to Chen Lan.

Broadcasting the mission to the world would promote China's international image because it will have great impact on people all over the world, Chen Lan told Spaceflight Now. Others have said China would attempt to cover up a catastrophic failure should it occur, similar to the policy instituted by the Soviet Union during many launches in the Cold War.

"I believe they have already been prepared, and will not simply cover (it) up," he said in response to written questions.

In addition to the whirlwind surrounding the upcoming manned flight, China in recent days has also released news of a previously planned launch of the first of a pair of satellites for a joint program with the European Space Agency to study Earth's magnetosphere.

Also announced were plans to send a lunar orbiter around the Moon within three years to study Earth's neighbor.

China also recently signed on with Europe's Galileo satellite navigation constellation that will be deployed within a few years. The military implications of having access to such a system could be huge.

The nation's look toward the stars began centuries ago, according to Chinese legends. A citizen named Wan Hu came up with a scheme to get himself into space by strapping himself in a chair and attaching a number of rockets filled with gunpowder. The legend goes that after the rockets were ignited there was a large explosion and Wan Hu was lost without a trace.

In modern times, China began development of an orbital launcher almost four decades ago, which led to the first satellite launch in 1970. Since then, China has launched communications, reconnaissance, navigation, and scientific satellites for the military, scientific organizations, and internationally-based groups.

In 1992, the Chinese government established Project 921, whose goal was to develop indigenous manned spaceflight capability. Limited cooperation with Russia over the past decade included training Chinese pilots alongside cosmonauts and the sale of flight hardware to China.

Officials have conducted four unmanned test flights since 1999, with each one becoming more realistic than the previous mission. A one-day flight debuted the Shenzhou spacecraft in November 1999, followed in January 2001, March 2002, and December 2002 by week-long stints in orbit. Tests of systems were carried out using animals, full-scale human dummies, and a number of scientific and military experiments.

Physically, the Shenzhou is roughly similar to the design of the Russian Soyuz craft, with three main modules and electricity supplied through the use of solar panels. But unlike the Soyuz, the Shenzhou carries two pair of solar arrays, producing almost three times the power of the Soyuz, according to Mark Wade's Other key differences also separate the Soyuz and Shenzhou into two distinct designs.

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