China Says Shenzhou Is Now An Operational Craft

By Bradley Perrett
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology

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.

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