Long March to space

Published : Nov 07, 2003 00:00 IST

At the launch of the Chang Zheng-2F rocket carrying the manned craft Shen Zhou-5 from the Jiuquan launch centre on October 15. - AFP

At the launch of the Chang Zheng-2F rocket carrying the manned craft Shen Zhou-5 from the Jiuquan launch centre on October 15. - AFP

With a successful manned space mission, China joins the big league of space powers - an achievement for a developing nation's indigenous technological capability.

ELEVEN years after its manned spaceflight programme - codenamed Project 921 - got under way and 42 years since the first human went into space to orbit the earth once, China became the third space-faring nation in the world when Yang Liwei, a 38-year-old Lieutenant Colonel of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), landed back safely in the descent module of the spacecraft Shen Zhou-5 (SZ-5) in the early hours of October 16. After staying in space for 21 hours and 23 minutes and orbiting the earth 14 times and traversing over 600,000 km in space, the spacecraft touched down at 10-23 p.m. GMT in the grasslands in the province of Inner Mongolia, about 1,000 km from the new launch-pad at the Jiuquan launch complex. The complex is situated close to the border of the Gangsu province and Inner Mongolia in the Gobi desert in northern China. According to Xinhua, the Chinese official news agency, the landing occurred 4.8 km away from the targeted spot.

While Liwei was only the 431st human in the 241st manned mission into space, the most significant thing about the mission was that it was an achievement of a developing country. (China has spent $2.2 billion so far for its manned space mission.) One can endlessly speculate about the underlying military connotations of China's forthcoming manned space missions, and the possible space rivalry that it might unleash between the United States - whose manned spaceflight programme is going through troubled times in the wake of the Columbia disaster and is unlikely to take off before 2004 - and China or even China-Russia collaborative ventures.

At this juncture, it should be noted that China is not competing with anybody. It was an achievement entirely of China's indigenous capability in space technology, its long-term vision of space technology development and its systematic progression with an agenda determined by the milestones that it has set for itself. According to this long-term plan, this launch accomplishes the first part of a three-stage manned mission that has been laid out (Frontline, October 24). The second part will involve docking and space-walking operations. In the last part, China plans to set up a permanent manned orbital station in space.

Although the launch was expected to take place in October, the date was not officially revealed until the week before. It finally came about in the early hours of October 15 - 1 a.m. GMT and 9 a.m. Beijing time - with the two-stage launcher Long March or Chang Zheng (CZ)-2F putting the 7.79-tonne SZ-5 into an orbit at an altitude of 343 km. (All the previous SZ launches were executed during night.) The spacecraft was launched into an elliptical orbit 350 kmx200 km at an inclination of 42.4 and was manoeuvred into the final circular orbit, which has a 31-day repeat period. In a sense, this was expected because the plenary meeting of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee concluded on October 14 and an event of this nature that catapults the nation into the league of big powers would have been viewed as politically important as well.

The launch was witnessed by top officials of the Chinese military and the Communist party, including President Hu Jintao. Though former President Jiang Zemin, who was the prime mover of China's manned space programme, was expected to be present at the launch, ill-health perhaps prevented him from attending it; he instead sent in congratulatory messages on the successful launch.

Soon after the launch, congratulatory messages began to pour in from all parts of the world and from outer space too. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in his message: "Exploration of space knows no national borders, the mission of SZ-5 is a step forward for all humankind." From outer space, the astronauts of the International Space Station (ISS) also sent salutary messages welcoming Liwei into space and wished him success and a safe journey.

Once in orbit, Liwei spoke to his family and was quoted as saying: "I am feeling very good in space, and it looks extremely splendid around here." Significantly, in orbit, Liwei held out the flags of the U.N. and China, the former being indicative of China's resolve to use space for peaceful purposes only, according to Zhang Qiyue, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson in Beijing.

There appears to have been a minor glitch in the telemetry during launch. The recorded telemetry from the first stage of launcher, according to reports, could not be transmitted. A search was on for the "black box" from the debris of the first stage of the rocket in an 800-km swath from Badain Jaran desert in Inner Mongolia to Yulin prefecture in Shanxi province in north China. This was only a contingency measure because real-time telemetry had indicated a successful launch. In fact, the three recovery ships, positioned to meet any eventuality of an emergency splashdown in the ocean, had been ordered to return to port following the successful launch.

Xinhua reported that, within hours of the launch, Liwei took rest and ate a traditional Chinese meal - designed to be in small quantities but of high nutrition - comprising diced chicken with rice cooked with "nuts, dates and other delicacies". A drink of medicinal herbs and tonics was also on the menu. After his meal, Liwei took a three-hour nap. According to reports, Liwei also took three-hour breaks on the spacecraft's 9th and 10th orbits. SZ is equipped with a sleeping bag attached to the wall of its orbital module.

THE launch was to be broadcast live on China's central television network, CCTV (Central China Television). Interestingly, however, the live telecast was cancelled a day before the launch ostensibly on the advice of "aerospace experts", according to Chinese newspapers. While replay of the television coverage filled the channel after the launch, live telecast was aired only after Liwei emerged from the spacecraft in a healthy condition. Even the parachuted landing and touchdown were apparently behind real time by about 6-7 minutes. The first real-time images started with Liwei sitting in the descent module with the top hatch open.

Given the complexity of the mission and the more-than-traditional caution required against adverse publicity in case of a failed mission, it was quite understandable that the live telecast was cancelled at the last moment. Even this decision is likely to have been a political one because Chinese space scientists and engineers have always exuded confidence about the success of the country's space missions, and SZ-1 to 4 have demonstrated that. But the crucial difference in the latest instance was that a real human being was being launched into risky outer space.

The first clear television pictures showed Liwei climbing out of the module, looking somewhat pale and wobbling a bit as he tried to stand. From the Beijing mission control centre, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao congratulated Liwei on the nation's behalf on his successful historic mission. Liwei has been quoted as saying that the spaceship operated well and he was feeling very good. Officially too, it was later confirmed that Liwei was in good health after his 21- hour stint in low-gravity outer space.

Besides Liwei, two others had been short-listed from the original list of 14 candidates who had undergone intense training. According to official information, a final psychological and physical examination determined that Liwei would be the most suitable taikonaut or yuhangyuan. In principle, the spacecraft SZ can carry up to three astronauts. The next launch of SZ, which Chinese officials have indicated could take place in 1-2 years' time, is likely to carry two yuhangyuans and may indeed orbit for 6-7 days, according to space experts.

SZ comprises the independently manoeuvrable descent and orbital modules, which together measure 9.2 m in length. The orbital module of SZ-5 has been left behind and is expected to orbit for 6-7 months carrying out on-board experiments and reconnaissance imaging using its on-board 1.6 m resolution reconnaissance camera. An electronic intelligence (ELINT) payload is also reported to be on-board the orbital module. The descent/service module itself has a lifetime of about 22 man-days.

However, as of date no orbit-raising manoeuvres, which were perfected with the launches of SZ-2 to SZ-4, have been performed. These are expected to begin shortly. Even though SZ's design is based on the Soviet Soyuz spacecraft besides its larger dimensions, the significant difference lies in this improved aspect of independent manoeuvrability of its two descent and orbital modules using independent solar panel power packs.

SZ is designed to do most tasks automatically, according to Phillip Clark, a space analyst and an expert on China's space programme. "It was a very simple mission by today's standards and the flight did not really need Liwei's participation," says Clark. "However, this does not detract from the Chinese accomplishment. The major feat of SZ-5 was to show to the world that China could launch a manned space mission."

"In flying SZ," Clark points out, "the Chinese have leapt beyond the Soviet Vostok and Voskhod and the early Soyuz and American Mercury and Gemini spacecraft." Clark added: "It is not as advanced in many capabilities as Apollo, but Apollo was designed to take men to the moon. Like Soyuz, SZ is more of a multi-purpose spacecraft and, in the future, one of its missions might take men to the moon. In fact, there might be an irony if SZ were to become a part of a lunar mission. The original Soyuz was intended for manned lunar programme but never made it." According to him, it is more realistic to compare SZ with the Soyuz-TM spacecraft that carried the Mir space station modules and flew the first Russian mission to the ISS.

THE only official information about the next manned launch by China is the statement that it would be in the next 1-2 years. But Clark expects that it could take place as early as next summer. After that, according to Clark, subsequent manned missions could be launched every six months or so. In fact, he thinks that a docking of SZ-7 with SZ-6 is a distinct possibility. A Chinese official, Zhou Xiafei, has been quoted as saying that no docking or spacewalking has been planned for the SZ-6 mission. Indeed, that should be so because SZ-5 does not carry any docking unit.

So far, the Chinese have been planning for launches at intervals of about 9-10 months. Delays, however, have prevented this schedule from being met. If docking is to be planned, the launches will have to be planned with much shorter turnaround times because, as Clark points out, the orbital modules carry propellants that is sufficient for only about 6-7 months and "even those lifetimes are partially governed by solar activity and how it affects the average atmospheric density at orbital altitudes". This year apparently, the density was lower than average and SZ-4 orbital module could last for eight months.

China has only one launch-pad capable of launching CZ-2F but, as Clark points out, the time taken between SZ-5 launcher rollout and launch was just four days. "So, two SZs could be prepared for launch once the first has been launched and within days, the second could be launched," says Clark. According to his calculations, orbits used by SZ so far suggest that the second one could be launched as quickly as within 47 hours and 12 minutes after the launch of the first. "If you have two people on each, that would permit a flight of 11 days minimum for each craft, allowing at least a week of docked operations," he says. However, all this will require the development of the CZ-2E(A) launcher, capable of launching a 13-14 tonne spacecraft into orbit. If this launcher is not realised, operations such as docking will have to wait till the development of CZ-5, the next generation of launchers, which is set for 2006-07, Clark points out.

Brian Harvey, the Chinese space historian, presents a slightly different scenario for future Chinese manned missions. "The Chinese prefer to fly during the northern hemisphere winter months," he points out. This, according to him, is for two reasons: clear night skies at the launch and the landing sites, and calm water in the southern summer seas for tracking ships.

His guess is that SZ-6 launch could take place in October 2004; a SZ docking and spacewalk mission (like the Russian 1969 Soyuz 4/5 mission) with SZ-7 and SZ-8 in October 2005; SZ-9 with a small space lab to be launched by CZ-2E(A) in October 2006; and the construction of a larger orbiting space station in 2007-08 using CZ-5.

The smaller number of launches is owing to the scale of budgets as compared to that of the U.S. or the former Soviet Union. "The manned space programme does receive steady but small sums of money. So it has to be stretched out," he points out.

The declared space station programme should keep the Chinese manned mission scientists and engineers as well as budgets occupied until 2015, feels Clark. If at all there is a manned lunar mission already planned, it could not take place before 2020 even though a lunar orbiter mission has been planned for 2007-08 and a sample return mission for 2015, says Clark.

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