Friday, May 6, 2011

China Outside the Blue Dot, Part 4

China Sends Monkeys, Fish, Man to Space
But in 1991, it finally happened—a reasonable president and budget, technology that was already half built, and a good timetable. President Jiang Zemin accepted head designer Ren Xin Min’s proposal, and in October of that year Qian retired.
The new program was called Program 921, and its stages of development, mapped out long in advance, look like a table of contents. Under it’s three phases—first a manned space flight, second a spacelab, and third (much later) a 20-ton space station of Chinese design—are numerous sub-systems that carefully plan the next twenty years of work. It began on January 1, 1992.
The most convincing members argued that it was best to start humbly, and so they did. The design for China’s ship came from the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, designed three decades before and still in use today.
Consisting of three modules—the orbital in the nose, the descent module in the middle, and the service module in the rear—it has never been “fixed,” only improved. Two solar wings fold out from the service module once it enters space, and the modules separate according to the mission’s plans. The descent module always carries the crew back across the atmosphere.
A Shenzhou, sans solar wings. (From top) Orbital Module,
Descent Module, and the white Service Module.
President Jiang named the Chinese ship Shenzhou, meaning Divine Vessel, or something (it’s not entirely translatable). It differs from the Soyuz only in that the Chinese had newer technology to start with, and so they have added a second set of solar wings and a control system to the front orbital module. This allows the unmanned pod to be flown autonomously after the crew flies home, which they have used excessively ever since. A Chinese Shenzhou weighs roughly 17,000 pounds, is thirty feet long, and its solar panels cover roughly 120 square feet.
In 1998 they had 12 astronaut candidates and began training. That year, construction of the International Space Station (ISS) began. You have probably seen it before on clear nights, but thought it was just another star. Whenever it’s visible, it is one of the brightest objects in the night sky.
Shenzhou 1 in Inner Mongolia, 1999
By 1999, their entire space program infrastructure was rebuilt or improved, and they were ready to begin testing. Their new tracking ships left port, causing the rest of the world to scratch their heads. One went off the coast of Australia; another floated near the International Date Line. On November 19th, the first unmanned test flight launched. Shenzhou 1 orbited and returned as mechanically ordered by one of the tracking ships chugging up and down the Namibian coast, and swayed underneath its parachute into the Gobi Desert.
In 2001 Shenzhou 2 launched, carrying all sorts of things—a monkey, a dog, several mice, and a rabbit (not the rabbit). It even had seeds from Taiwan. Unidentified marine life, probably very small, flew as well. No photos have been released in the ten years since its launch, and rumors have spread that its chute failed, causing it to crash land. Keeping silent didn’t brush away the rumors. One doctor did give an interview, though, that quickly deteriorated and ended with him yelling about a fruit fly experiment that did or maybe didn’t happen, but was supposed to see the results of reproduction in zero-gravity. He stormed out, saying flies had nothing to do with sending a Chinese astronaut into space.
But before the mission ever failed or succeeded, the ship released the orbital module while still in orbit, and it flew away. It circled the earth for the next half year on its own.
Shenzhou 3 saw a dress rehearsal. Pilot candidates sat inside the ship, pushing buttons. They ran out just before launch and were replaced by a dummy. Shenzhou 3 was also equipped with a full electronic payload in its orbital module, which circled the earth for 232 days after the initial mission, carrying such weird things as a space crystallization furnace, protein crystal equipment, and cameras with 600mm aperture, which is the sort that photographers use to take pictures of hummingbirds. What it took pictures of is unclear.
Experts have stared at press photos for the last decade, pointing at strange looking antennas and boxes on the nose of each new Shenzhou spacecraft. Most are worried about the cameras, and what they are taking pictures of. They also look at the ELINT (or Electronic Signals Intelligence) built into the nose of each ship—a little tool with three antennas that gathers information from earth.
The Chinese may be using an ELINT to catalogue the RADAR capability of the traveling US Navy, or maybe not. Whatever they are doing, some believe that their orbital modules have circled the earth for nearly 90% of the time since 2002. “That’s a long time,” we’ve been told.
Chinese scientists promised they were close to a manned flight. Pilots trained inside Shenzhou 4 in late 2002, and stayed at the Jiuquan launch site in the days surrounding the launch. The ship flew with a sleeping bag, food and medication. Politburo members attended the launch, which occurred in the lead up to the US campaign in Iraq. Foreign journalists began arriving in Bagdad, but the Chinese supposedly watched the first several months of the war from unmanned orbit.
Yang Liwei, pilot of Shenzhou 5
And then, in October 2003, the news became true. The Mission Insignia was a picture of Chang’e flying among bright stars, and the patch was placed on the shoulder of a space suit. The day before the flight, pilot candidate Yang Liwei was asked to step aside for a moment, where he was told he would fly into space tomorrow. He woke up early the next morning, ate a light breakfast, and orbited the earth 14 times.
Before his trip to space, Russian pilot Yuri Gagarin said that his entire life seemed like one beautiful moment, and wrote a letter to his wife and daughter. American Alan Shepard sat in the capsule, listening to the countdown, and reportedly thought about how the rocket under his seat was built by the lowest bidders, and cursed quietly under his breath. Yang, a quiet man, told mission control that he felt fine, and ate shredded pork with garlic and herbal tea. His descent module landed in the grasslands not far from the launch site after travelling more than 600 megametres (thousands and thousands of miles, essentially). He returned to Beijing that Thursday, and said it the best day of his life.
Qian watched the launch from his hospital bed. Premier Wen Jiabao visited him, and Qian confidently told him that he decided to live to be 100.
Shenzhou 6 followed suit, sending the two backups from Shenzhou 5 into orbit for nearly a week. Pigeons were released in front of the astronauts’ homes, and they reportedly traded seats midflight, which was a big deal.
Shenzhou 7 pilots (from left) Jing Haipeng, Zhai Zhigang, and Liu Boming
The latest mission, Shenzhou 7, launched a month after the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing. It carried three pilots, and two of them made the first Chinese space walk, in which the taikonauts crawled out of the ship and floated in space for nearly half an hour, waving flags for viewers back home.
The Chinese managed another first on that mission—launching a really miniature satellite from the spaceship, which orbited Shenzhou 7 as Shenzhou 7 orbited the earth. The small box took photos of the ship and floated, blinking its lights, out about 120 miles away doing its own thing. Some time later in the mission, the ship flew past the International Space Station, just 20 miles below it. Whether the Chinese were trying to intimidate or show off is still unclear, but it seemed to annoy the rest of the space community.
“It was a glorious mission,” astronaut (taikonaut, yuhangyuan) Zhai Zhigang said upon landing. More Coming tomorrow.

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