China ready for history-making human spaceflight

Posted: October 14, 2003

If all goes according to plan, China will join one of the most exclusive international clubs this week when the country's much-awaited inaugural manned flight is expected to blast off from its space base in a remote part of the communist nation.

Liftoff of the Long March 2F rocket is expected between Wednesday and Friday from a specially-built launch pad at the Jiuquan launching center in the Gobi desert, located in the northern part of China. Official media reports say the pad is located in the Chinese Gansu province, however space experts indicate the site is just across the border with Inner Mongolia.

The launch could be as early as 9 a.m. Wednesday, Beijing time (0100 GMT or 9 p.m. EDT Tuesday), according to some reports. The official Xinhua news agency has only said the prestigious mission will begin "at an appropriate time."

Perched atop the rocket is the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft -- meaning "divine vessel" -- awaiting what likely will be a single passenger that has a background as a high performance fighter pilot in the Chinese air force. Fourteen candidates for the mission were chosen several years ago, and three have recently been selected in a final competition for the coveted seat. It is not known when the world will know the identity of the chosen taikonaut or yuhangyuan -- the two most commonly used terms to refer to Chinese astronauts -- but the answer could come at any time.

The two-stage Long March 2F launcher with four liquid-fueled boosters -- all utilizing a mix of unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine fuel and nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer -- will take just under ten minutes to reach orbit. Like the Russian Soyuz manned launch system, if there should be a problem during the boost phase, there is a launch escape system to carry the spacecraft and its crew safely away from danger.

The over 190-foot tall Long March is assembled in the confines of a cavernous integration building that starkly resembles the famous facility at Cape Canaveral that housed the assembly of parts of the massive Saturn 5 moon rockets and today is where critical space shuttle components are put together. Rollout from the assembly building to the launch pad likely comes in the final days leading up to liftoff.

The facilities serving the Long March 2F rocket and its Shenzhou payload were built in the 1990's at the Jiuquan satellite launch center, an almost 45-year old base that very little was known about until recently. Jiuquan was China's first launch site and was originally used to for ballistic missile tests and for lofting satellites into low Earth orbit.

Expected to last just under a day, the mission will initially operate in an elliptical orbit that stretches 200 kilometers by 350 kilometers at an inclination of about 42.4 degrees, Xinhua said Friday. The craft will then perform a maneuver to circularize the orbit at about 343 kilometers, much like recent unmanned Shenzhou missions have done several hours into their flights.

The expectation is that the flight will circle the globe 14 times in about 21 hours, an encore performance of the maiden flight of the Shenzhou spacecraft in November 1999. Shenzhou 5's re-entry module containing the mission's human cargo will then separate from the orbital module, to be left in orbit for a number of months to conduct long-term space experiments.

The re-entry module will then begin its entry sequence to return to Earth. Landing in the remote steppes of the Inner Mongolia province -- not far from the launch site -- should come early in the morning of Thursday, Chinese time, given an ontime launch.

Recovery teams will be standing by awaiting the parachuted touchdown. Little is known about plans for the spacecraft or for its passenger after the flight is completed.

Coverage of the flight was expected to be provided live by CCTV, China's central television network that is available to people across much of the world who have access to a satellite dish. A 20-part documentary was also reportedly in the works. But late Tuesday, the China Daily reported that the CCTV broadcast idea had been abandoned.

Much of the fanfare surrounding the manned spaceflight project is purely propaganda, says Charles Vick, a space analyst with "This also implies that the manned program serves as both a propaganda platform to say that China is a world power but also serves the purpose of regime leadership legitimization to say to the Chinese people that look what we have achieved under their communist party leadership," he wrote in a draft paper this year on

Funding for Project 921, the official name for the decade-old military-run program to put a Chinese astronaut in space, is valued at roughly $2.3 billion, according to

For the large portion of the 33-year history of China's status as a spacefaring nation, events have rarely ever been announced in advance due to the military's heavy involvement in the program. That is in sharp contrast to the past few days, when state-run news agencies have churned out report after report heralding the imminent launch of the nation's first manned mission.

The prestige value of such a mission is perceived as quite high, especially since only two other nations have ever possessed the capability to send humans into space. The Soviet Union and the United States both sent men into space in April and May of 1961, respectively.