Launching its fifth manned space mission, China has declared its Shenzhou spacecraft fully operational as it prepares to loft an orbital laboratory, a freighter and, around the end of the decade, a space station.
The objectives of the 15-day Shenzhou 10 mission, launched June 11, are to further develop China's technologies for docking and supporting human life in space, laying the groundwork for the space station. With Shenzhou 10, the phase aimed at perfecting docking and spacewalking techniques should be completed.
China will launch a space laboratory within two years, says Zhou Jianping, chief engineer of the manned space program. A freighter, which must be in development, will demonstrate orbital fueling. State news agency Xinhua says the space station would be launched before 2016, possibly referring to lofting of the first module—or perhaps the laboratory, which will be smaller.
The likely masses of the space station modules, around 20 metric tons each, mean that the whole effort is awaiting the introduction into service of the Long March 5 heavy launcher, which was most recently scheduled to make its first flight in 2015 (AW&ST March 25, p. 30).
As in the two previous missions, the docking target of Shenzhou 10 is the Tiangong 1, a space module that has also been referred to and used as an orbital laboratory. Tiangong 1 is nearing the end of its two-year design life. The Shenzhou crew of two men and one woman are tasked with docking with Tiangong twice—once automatically and once manually. Officials warn that Tiangong 1's age presents some risks.
A Long March 2F, identical to that used for Shenzhou 9 last year, launched the latest mission at 09:38 GMT on June 11 from the Jiuquan base in the Gobi desert; the spacecraft reached orbit about 20 min. later. The Long March 2F is China's human-rated rocket, though it was also used to launch the unmanned Tiangong 1 and Shenzhou 8. The forthcoming Long March 7 is intended eventually to supplant the Long March 2F for manned missions, although presumably not until it has been used for some years in other roles.
Chinese media emphasize the difficulty that China faces in these missions, because it is limited by the throw-weight to low orbit of the Long March 2F, less than 9 metric tons. In an intended version with four boosters, the Long March 7 will be able to launch 13.5 tons to low Earth orbit.
The throw-weight of the Long March 7 is matched to the planned 13-ton loaded mass of the unmanned freighter, which, with a diameter of 3.35 meters (11 ft.), will resemble the Tiangong 1. It will carry supplies up only, since it will not survive reentry. The cargo capacity of the freighter is undisclosed, but the mass of Tiangong 1, 8.5 tons including equipment to support life, suggests that at least 4 tons should be accommodated.
The Shenzhou craft is no longer considered experimental, Zhou tells Xinhua, suggesting that the major development effort on the spacecraft, which resembles an enlarged Soyuz, is now complete. However, Shenzhou's chief designer, Zhang Bainan, says further missions will improve its reliability and safety. Until last year's Shenzhou 9 mission, engineers were progressively improving the craft with physical changes and new procedures and failure modes.
China's first astronaut went into orbit in 2003 aboard Shenzhou 3, its first spacewalk occurred in 2008 with Shenzhou 7, and its first docking in 2011 with the unmanned Shenzhou 8 and Tiangong 1. The Shenzhou 8 docking was necessarily automatic; Shenzhou 9 followed with a manual procedure in 2012 that was 3 min. faster than the automatic routine. In fact, that was the first time a Chinese crew had controlled a spacecraft. Previously, ground operators executed all maneuvers, even though the spacecraft were fitted with manual controls. (Shenzhou, pronounced “shen-jo,” means “divine craft.” It is a homonym of an old name for China. Tiangong, pronounced “tian-gong,” means “palace of the heavens.”)
Shenzhou 10 was provisionally scheduled as a back-up. Had Shenzhou 8 failed to prove automatic docking, Shenzhou 9 would have been launched with the same task, and Shenzhou 10 would have attempted the first manual docking. Since Shenzhou 8 and 9 both achieved their docking tasks, Shenzhou 10's main role must be to confirm the procedures with extra practice runs before they are actually needed for the space station. Air locks were not opened between Tiangong 1 and Shenzhou 8 (which, after all, had no one aboard to pass between them) but were for the Shenzhou 9 mission and presumably will be again for Shenzhou 10.
As usual, the Chinese government is giving the manned mission blanket media coverage to extract the maximum propaganda value. That is, after all, what it has paid for, since the developing country, with an income per capita of $6,000, has even less justification for a scientific-engineering effort of a kind that even in rich countries is widely criticized as giving doubtful value for the cost. The launch was inevitably associated with “the China Dream,” the slogan of the country's new president, Xi Jinping, and state media went so far as to mention the possibility of astronauts eventually forming a Communist Party committee in space.
The propagandists may have fudged the age of Maj. Wang Yaping, the female member of the crew, to create a sense of inclusion for Chinese born in the 1980s, who are generally less satisfied with Communist leadership than their elders. Trumpeting her as representing the 1980s generation, state media say she was born in January 1980—but the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper, notes previous reports that she was born in 1978. The other crew members are Maj. Gen. Nie Hashing, the mission commander, and Sr. Col. Zhang Xiaoguang.