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China’s Great Leap Upward
By boosting astronauts into orbit, China hopes to become the next superpower in space

By James Oberg

At the Jiuquan Space Center near the edge of the Gobi Desert in northern China, Shenzhou 5 is being readied for launch. The spacecraft -- its name means “divine vessel” in Chinese -- is nearly nine meters long and weighs almost eight metric tons. Sometime this fall, Shenzhou 5 is scheduled to blast into orbit atop a Chang Zheng (“Long March”) rocket. Four earlier Shenzhou spacecraft have already made orbital flights, but unlike these unmanned test vehicles, Shenzhou 5 is expected to carry a crew of up to three (accounts vary) young Chinese military pilots. If all goes as planned, China will become the third nation to send people into space.

Although representatives of three dozen countries have gone into orbit since the dawn of the space age, they have all traveled aboard either American or Russian spacecraft. In pursuing its own human spaceflight program, China has acquired and adapted some technologies originally developed in Russia and the U.S. Many features of the Shenzhou seem familiar to space experts; at first glance, the craft looks like a slightly bigger version of the Russian Soyuz vessel. But China’s space agency built several key systems on its own, and in some ways the Shenzhou is technologically superior to the Soyuz.

The first manned flight of the Shenzhou will have profound diplomatic echoes. In addition to garnering international prestige, China hopes that its human spaceflight program will stimulate advances in the country’s aerospace, computer and electronics industries. If the initial missions are successful, China will probably establish its own space station in Earth orbit. Within a decade, China’s space activities may well surpass those of Russia and the European Space Agency. And if China becomes the most important space power after the U.S., an entirely new “space race” may be in the offing.

The Upcoming Flight

China’s space ambitions date back to 1970, when a Chang Zheng rocket boosted Mao 1, the country’s first satellite, into orbit. (The meter-wide craft transmitted the patriotic song, “The East is Red,” as it circled the globe.) In 1992 President Jiang Zemin gave the go-ahead for a manned space program, and the decision set off a tremendous construction boom that was in some ways as impressive as NASA’s buildup for the Apollo project in the 1960s. At the Jiuquan Space Center, the oldest and largest of the three locations where Chinese missiles and satellites are launched, a new rocket-assembly building and launch pad were completed in time for the first unmanned Shenzhou flight in 1999. Although the agency overseeing the program, the Chinese Academy of Space Technology, has been secretive about certain aspects -- such as the training of its astronauts -- many technical details about the spacecraft have appeared in the Chinese press.

The Shenzhou consists of three modules [see illustration on page 00]. The crew will ride in a coffee-cup-shaped unit -- the command module, in NASA parlance -- that contains their couches (upon which the crew members lie horizontally during liftoff) and control panels. Attached to the front of the command module is a cylindrical pressurized unit (referred to as the orbital module) that will provide additional workspace for the astronauts. Behind the command module is a cylindrical equipment section (the service module) holding rocket engines and an electrical power system and sporting a pair of solar power panels with a total area of 24 square meters.

The official designation of the launch vehicle is Chang Zheng 2F, but it is also poetically referred to as the Shen Jian (“divine arrow”). It is a version of the Chang Zheng 2E -- a liquid-propellant rocket derived from Chinese military missiles -- that has been upgraded to make it reliable enough for manned flight. Like other launch vehicles of this family that have been designed to carry heavier payloads, its original four-engine core is augmented by four strap-on boosters. All the rocket engines use liquid nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine propellants, not the more powerful but troublesome liquid hydrogen fuel used by the space shuttle’s engines. The Shen Jian’s launch thrust of 604,000 kilograms of force (kgf) puts it between the standard booster for the Soyuz (411,000 kgf) and the Saturn 1B (740,000 kgf) that carried several Apollo spacecraft into orbit between 1966 and 1975.

Shenzhou 5 will take the same flight path as its four unmanned predecessors [see illustration on page 00]. After liftoff the booster will head east, crossing the Chinese coastline near Qingdao (site of a new tracking station) and moving over the Yellow Sea at a maximum acceleration of about five g’s. Passing just south of the Japanese island of Kyushu, the spacecraft will be in communications with a large tracking ship and soon achieve an orbital velocity of about eight kilometers per second. Its orbital inclination will be about 42 degrees, somewhat more equatorial than the 52-degree inclination of the International Space Station.

To return to Earth, the Shenzhou first jettisons the orbital module. The service module then fires a small braking engine to slow the spacecraft’s velocity by about 200 meters per second. This maneuver allows Earth’s gravity to tug the craft down into the upper atmosphere, where air braking slows it down further. Because the aim point is a landing zone in Inner Mongolia about TK kilometers east of the Jiuquan Space Center, the braking engine fires while the spacecraft is still half a world away, over the South Atlantic Ocean. After the firing, the service and command modules separate; the former burns up in the atmosphere, whereas the latter is equipped on its base with a heat shield that protects the crew from the searing temperatures of reentry.

The landing sequence follows the pattern of the Soyuz and Apollo spacecraft. After a relatively high-g deceleration, the command module falls freely though the lower atmosphere, releasing a drogue parachute at an altitude of about 30 kilometers and then a larger main parachute. The heavy heat shield is then jettisoned. Touchdown on the open steppe is softened by the triggering of a set of rockets in the capsule’s base. Recovery teams in the zone then rush to the landing point and retrieve the crew.

Shenzhou 1, the first unmanned test vehicle, was launched on November 20, 1999, and spent less than a day in orbit. In each of the three subsequent flights (launched on January 10, 2001, March 25, 2002, and December 29, 2002), the spacecraft spent a week in orbit as progressively more sophisticated hardware was tested. Shenzhou 2 carried a monkey, a dog and a rabbit to test the craft’s life-support system. Shenzhou 4 was described as a completely human-capable vessel, with all the equipment needed to accommodate three people. In fact, astronauts reportedly took part in the countdown inside the command module, leaving the craft only a few hours before liftoff.

Copy of Soyuz?

Because of the Shenzhou’s superficial resemblance to the Soyuz, many observers concluded that the Chinese vehicle was nothing more than a knockoff with only minor modifications. David Baker, editor of the British publication Jane's Space Directory, said the Shenzhou is "a Soyuz to a very considerable extent -- it’s off the shelf, as it were." But Brian Harvey, author of The Chinese Space Program: From Conception to Future Capabilities (Wiley-Praxis, 1998), has criticized this view. “There are a lot of misperceptions about the Chinese space program,” Harvey says, referring to myths of low-technology spacecraft and widespread copying of foreign designs. “A lot of it reflects a Western cultural notion that the Chinese couldn't possibly master this kind of technology. I think it's more helpful to look at the way in which the Chinese have built their program up over the years -- slowly, patiently, carefully, in a disciplined way, with the careful selection of choices, borrowing from elsewhere, but only to a limited extent.”

Most other independent experts agree. Some reports indicate that although the Chinese had asked to purchase a fully-functional Soyuz vehicle for study, the Russians demanded a price so high that the deal never took place. The capsule they bought was a stripped-down version missing many key space systems. And the Chinese may also have picked up at least one off-course unmanned Soyuz-class capsule that crashed inside their country early in the space age.

The three-module design of Shenzhou is a logical arrangement, first developed independently by U.S. and Soviet teams more than 40 years ago. Shenzhou looks less like today’s Soyuz than like the preliminary designs for Soyuz and Apollo. Although Shenzhou’s command module has some similarities to Soyuz’s reentry capsule, the other modules are quite different from their Russian and American counterparts. The service module, for example, has four main engines, whereas Apollo’s service module had only one and Soyuz has one main and one backup engine. Also, Shenzhou’s large solar arrays generate several times more electrical power than the Russian system. And unlike Soyuz, the Chinese orbital module carries its own solar panels and independent flight control system, allowing it to continue as a free-flying unmanned mini-laboratory long after the reentry module has brought the crew back to Earth.

One example of outright Chinese copying is in the cabin pressure suits, used to protect the astronauts in case of an air leak during flight. The Russians introduced such a survival suit (called the Sokol) in 1972 after three cosmonauts died in an accidental cabin depressurization during their return to Earth. (A much more sophisticated suit is used for spacewalks.) The Chinese needed a suit with similar functions, so after obtaining samples of the Sokol design they copied it exactly, right down to the stitching and color scheme.

Chinese officials have made no secret of such technology transfers. A lengthy article on Chinese space plans appearing in the Xinhua News Agency’s magazine Liaowang in 2002 stated: “After China and Russia signed a space cooperation agreement in 1996, the two countries carried out very fruitful cooperation in docking system installations, model spaceships, flight control, and means of life support and other areas of manned space flight. Russia’s experience in space technology development was and is of momentous significance as enlightenment to China.”

The mention of docking systems is especially illuminating. Although Russia and the U.S. have used different types of docking mechanisms over the years to link spacecraft in orbit, photographs of Shenzhou indicate that the Chinese have chosen a Russian variant called the APAS-89. The device consists of a pressurized tunnel 80 centimeters in diameter surrounded by sloping metal petals that allow any two units of the same design to latch together. Originally developed for the Russian Mir space station, the APAS-89 is used to dock NASA’s space shuttles to the International Space Station (ISS). Although China is primarily interested in docking its spacecraft with its own small space stations, the decision to employ the APAS-89 mechanism allows Shenzhou to link with both the space shuttles and the ISS.

Building the Booster

The development of the launch vehicle for the Shenzhou also illustrates China’s space technology strategy. The rocket is an outgrowth of earlier versions used for scientific and commercial launches, but some very specific improvements have been made. According to Liu Zhusheng, the chief designer of the Chang Zheng 2F booster, the reliability of the vehicle is rated at 97 percent -- that is, it is expected to fail in only three of 100 launches. (The rated reliability of the unmodified Chang Zheng boosters is 91 percent.) Furthermore, the Shenzhou can separate from its booster in the event of a launch catastrophe. Speaking to Xinhua News Agency reporters last January, Liu described an entirely new malfunction-diagnosis system to monitor the booster’s status and, if needed, activate backup mechanisms or initiate the spacecraft escape. He claimed that the escape system gives the crew a survival probability of 99.7 percent.

Shenzhou’s launch escape system is based on the “tractor rocket” scheme originally developed for NASA’s Mercury flights in the early 1960s and later adopted by the designers of the Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft. A set of solid-propellant rockets mounted on a tower on the nose of the Shenzhou pulls the spacecraft clear of the booster in the event of a launch disaster. The spacecraft then parachutes to the ground. The solid-fuel rockets are armed from 15 minutes before liftoff until 160 seconds afterward (at which point the spacecraft is at an altitude of 110 kilometers).

In an interview with People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, launch vehicle manager Huang Chunping showed a reporter a model of the booster that had four wings on the payload fairing that surrounds the Shenzhou during liftoff. The wings, each resembling a lattice, are required to keep the Shenzhou stable during a launch escape. “This is the most difficult part of the escape system,” he explained. “We once wanted to inquire about it from Russian experts, but they set the price at $10 million. Finally we solved the problem on our own.” This pattern of studying previous work but designing the actual flight hardware independently was followed on most other Shenzhou systems.

Astronauts and Infrastructure

China did, however, receive Russian help in training its astronauts. As part of the 1996 cooperation agreement between the two countries, two Chinese military pilots -- Wu Jie and Li Qinglong -- took courses at Russia's Gagarin Space Flight Training Center in Star City outside Moscow. They reportedly are now directing the training program for China’s flight candidates. Twelve other pilots were later picked to join them in the first group of Chinese astronauts. Last January, Hong Kong newspapers named Chen Long as the leading candidate for the command of the first manned flight.

All the Chinese astronauts are young university-educated jet pilots with more than 1,000 hours of flying experience. Because the Shenzhou, like the Soyuz, has a limited amount of cabin space, small stature is a requirement: each astronaut is under 170 centimeters (five feet, seven inches) tall and weighs less than 65 kilograms (143 pounds). What the Chinese astronauts should be called is still in dispute. One Chinese space enthusiast coined the term "taikonaut," from the Chinese “tai kong,” or “outer space.” However, Chinese officials and newspapers prefer "yuhangyuan," which roughly translates as "space navigator."

In preparation for the Shenzhou missions, China vastly improved its facilities for spaceflight research and training. The new China Space Center in Aerospace City, a southwestern suburb of Beijing, is home to a collection of pressure chambers, space vehicle simulators, a centrifuge and a landing impact tower, along with classrooms and medical facilities for astronauts. Mission control for the Shenzhou flights is located here. Also, the new Space Technology Research and Test Center in Tangjialing, northwest of Beijing, includes spacecraft integration halls, space environment chambers (such as the world’s fifth largest vacuum chamber), vibration test facilities and laboratories.

What is more, China has launched four ocean-going ships to track its missiles and spacecraft. These Yuan Wang (“Long View”) ships have been deployed in the Pacific Ocean to monitor military missile tests and in the Indian Ocean to control the maneuvering of satellites into geosynchronous orbit. The ships are sent into the South Atlantic, Indian and South Pacific Oceans to support the Shenzhou flights. The Russians used to have a similar fleet but scrapped it in the 1990s because of budget constraints. Rather than purchase the Russian ships, China built its own.

Because some of the critical ground-control functions for the Shenzhou’s return to Earth must be performed while the craft is over the South Atlantic, China signed an agreement with the African nation of Namibia in 2000 to build a tracking station near the town of Swakopmund. Construction started in early 2001 and was completed by year’s end. Five permanent residents occupy the facility, and the staff expands to 20 during missions. The site lies under the reentry path of the Shenzhou, and because the craft’s orbit has a different inclination than the International Space Station’s, the Namibian base could not be used to track flights returning from there. This suggests that despite the Shenzhou’s compatible docking gear, the Chinese seem to have no near-term interest in visiting the ISS.

China’s Goals

The first unmanned test flight of Shenzhou in 1999 prompted a great outpouring of national pride. "Landmark Launch Shakes the World!" thundered People’s Daily. But to justify the expense of the Shenzhou program -- officials say 19 billion yuan, or $2.3 billion, have been spent so far -- China surely expects more than feel-good headlines. The government anticipates that a successful manned space program will enhance China’s world status and the reputation of its high-tech exports, giving the country greater diplomatic and commercial power.

Furthermore, China sees space technology as critical to quickly achieving technological parity with Western nations and Japan. A white paper issued in 2000 by the Information Office of the State Council claimed that the space industry is “an integral part of the state's comprehensive development strategy.” According to an article in the June 2000 issue of Xiandai Bingqi, the monthly journal of a military technology research institute, the human spaceflight program “will raise levels in areas such as computers, space materials, manufacturing technology, electronic equipment, systems integration and testing.” The journal also notes that the experience of developing spacecraft navigation, propulsion, life support and other subsystems could be applied to “dual-use military/civilian projects."

Under this national space plan, China plans to build an impressive stand-alone space capability on a narrow technological base. Instead of developing a wide variety of aerospace technologies, as the U.S. has done over the past four decades, China will focus on specific areas where it can match and then out-do the accomplishments of other nations. In an article appearing in People’s Daily in April 2000, Luan Enjie, director of China's Aerospace Bureau, explained: “With limited state financial resources and very weak industrial and technical foundations, we do not have the strength to comprehensively catch up with and surpass world advanced levels in all aerospace fields. Over the past thirty years, China's aerospace industry has persistently followed its own developmental path.”

Although China is still far from challenging the space status of the U.S., it may have more attainable goals in mind. If there is a new space race under way, it’s for second place. Russia’s space program faded in the 1990s and now preserves its remaining capabilities only through massive commercial sales to Western customers. With a GNP and federal budget five times as great as Russia’s, China can easily afford to outspend America’s former chief rival in the space race. But the Chinese are not being profligate. The $2.3 billion that China has reportedly spent on the Shenzhou project over the past decade is a little more than half of what NASA spends on the space shuttle every year.

The burgeoning Chinese space program is already beginning to eclipse the European Space Agency (ESA), which has never sent astronauts into orbit but leads the world in launching unmanned commercial satellites. The ESA faces political disenchantment among its member states and cuts in its space research budget. Brian Harvey, author of The Chinese Space Program: From Conception to Future Capabilities, says it is possible that over the next five years China will match the ESA’s launch rate (about 10 launches per year) - and that already seems to be happening. “Europe's launches will be mainly commercial and scientific, whereas China will concentrate on applications and its manned program,” Harvey says. In 2001 Roger-Maurice Bonnet, the retiring director of the ESA Science Program, declared that European governments must make the political decision to spend what it takes to maintain the ESA's second-ranked position in space research (after the U.S.). Otherwise, warned Bonnet, China would overtake the Europeans within a decade.

Many space experts agree that China's drive to overtake the Europeans and Russians is entirely credible. "China certainly has the political will to forge ahead with its space program," says Joan Johnson-Freese, formerly of the Asia-Pacific Center on Security Studies and now with the Naval War College. "[China] recognizes all the internal and external prestige-related benefits of space that the U.S. and the FSU [Former Soviet Union] did in the 1960s, as well as the technology-industrialization-economic benefits that pushed Europe into space later."

Next Steps

As evidence of their determination, China’s space officials have already laid out the steps to follow the initial manned Shenzhou missions. The aforementioned 2002 article in Liaowang magazine described the development plan: “After it succeeds in manned space flight, China will very soon launch a cosmic experimental capsule capable of catering to astronauts’ short stays.” This capsule is elsewhere described as “a laboratory with short-term human presence,” to be followed later on by a space station designed for long-term stays. Last January, unnamed officials provided further background to Xinhua News Agency reporters: “As the next step, China will endeavor to achieve breakthroughs in docking technology for manned spacecraft and space vehicles, and will launch a skylab. After that it will build a long-term manned space station to resolve problems related to large-scale space science experiments and applied technology and to make contributions to mankind’s peaceful development of outer space.”

Zhang Qingwei, a leading official of the Chinese agency overseeing the Shenzhou program, told People’s Daily last January: “[The] orbital cabin [remains in space] to lay a foundation for China’s second-step manned spaceflight project -- forming a docking link between a spacecraft and another flight vehicle.” Observers generally interpret this to mean that a near-future Shenzhou mission will leave its specially-equipped orbital module in space, where it will then serve as a rendezvous and docking target for the next Shenzhou launch. Once this capability has been demonstrated, China could proceed directly to the small space laboratory (a photograph of a high-fidelity mockup has already been released).

Phillip Clark, a British space consultant specializing in Russian and Chinese technology, expects China’s space agency to launch a small 12- to 14-ton laboratory, perhaps within the next two years. Clark predicts that in 2006 or 2007 China will loft a station similar to the Russian Salyut stations launched in the 1970s and 1980s (with masses ranging from 20 to 40 tons). Finally, according to Clark, China will begin the orbital assembly of a structure like the 130-ton Russian Mir station, which flew for 15 years before burning up in a planned reentry in 2001. (The partially assembled International Space Station currently has a mass of nearly 200 tons.)

In addition, China has been accelerating its deployment of unmanned satellites for communications, weather, navigation and space research. Chinese officials have also discussed plans to land small remote-controlled rovers on the moon, equipped with cameras and manipulator arms, by 2010. Some Western media have reported that China wants to eventually land astronauts on the moon, but these accounts have come from unofficial sources and may have been mistranslated. A manned mission to the moon would be many times as expensive as the Shenzhou project, whereas the payoffs might be only incrementally more.

According to space experts such as Brian Harvey, boosting astronauts into orbit will be enough to make the world see China in a new light. “Public and media perceptions are all-important,” Harvey says. “If China puts astronauts into space, there will be a perception that the country has reached space superpower status. If China follows that with its own Salyut-class space station, it will impress the Asian region specifically and the world as a whole.” China’s goals for its space program are obviously not the same as America’s, Russia’s or Europe’s. Judging from the hardware already built and the infrastructure in place, it seems clear that China intends to follow its own path in space for the foreseeable future.


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