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Chinese Space Laboratory
Part of Shenzhou Family

Chinese Space Lab

Chinese Space Lab
Credit: © Mark Wade

Chinese manned space station. Study 2012. The latest models displayed of the Chinese Space Laboratory show it to have a larger-diameter module, about 4 m in diameter, and a narrower module forward, about 3 m in diameter.

AKA: Project 921-3. Status: Study 2012. Gross mass: 20,000 kg (44,000 lb). Height: 11.00 m (36.00 ft).

A Shenzhou is shown docked to the forward end, and what seems to be another docking port (or possibly a propulsion module) appeared at the base of the large-diameter module. It was very reminiscent of the early Soviet Salyut space stations. By 2007 scheduled launch had slipped to beyond 2012.

China began preliminary work on advanced manned spaceflight in July 1985. The decision came against a background of vigorous international space activity. The United States had its Strategic Defense Initiative and Space Station Freedom. The Soviet Union had its Buran shuttle system, Mir and Mir-2 space stations, and its own star wars program. Europe was developing the Hermes manned spaceplane, and Japan the Hope winged spacecraft. Even India and China were taking on ambitious space projects. It seemed China would have to take action to remain a world power.

Ren Xin Min, the leading Chinese rocketry expert of the time, believed that China should make a space station its national goal. This would develop all aspects of space technology, including modern launch vehicle capabilities. In early spring 1986, members of a standing committee of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Wang Da Hang, Wang Ganchang, Yang Jiachi, Chen Fangyun) proposed a family of seven Project 863 plans to accelerate Chinese technical development. These numbered plans covered biology, astronautics, information technology, military technology, automation, energy, and materials science. Astronautics plan 863-2 included section 863-204 space transportation system, which would service the 863-205 space station. It was estimated that two years would be needed for concept studies.

Work began immediately on defining the 863-204 shuttle spacecraft. The final 863-204 Expert Commission report in July 1989 advocated building a manned capsule, with a first flight date of 2000. This would satisfy the leadership's desire for an early Chinese manned space capability, and establish the essential earthly infrastructure and spacecraft subsystems technology for more advanced systems. However in parallel development of technology for a two-stage-two-orbit horizontal takeoff and landing reusable space shuttle would be pursued, with a first flight date of 2015.

The report failed to impress the government. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping rejected both plans, saying that neither could be flying in his lifetime. The Chinese space establishment went back to the drawing board. However within three years the plan for a manned capsule would be resurrected as Project 921, which would make its first manned flight in 2003 as the Shenzhou spacecraft. On 1 August 1992 Li Peng attended the final meeting of the Project 921 board and where the following program plan was presented:

  • Phase 1 would involve launch of 2 unmanned versions of the manned spacecraft, followed by the first Chinese manned spaceflight, by 2002.
  • Phase 2 would run through 2007, and involve a series of flights to prove the technology, conduct rendezvous and docking operations in orbit, and operate an 8-metric ton spacelab using the basic spacecraft technology.
  • Phase 3 would involve orbiting of a 20-metric ton space station in the 2010-2015 period, with crews being shuttled to it using the 8-metric ton manned spacecraft.

The final plan was approved on 21 September 1992, and Project 921 to create a Chinese manned space capability began in earnest. $ 2.3 billion was spent in 1992-2003 creating the Shenzhou manned spacecraft and the infrastructure to support it.

Authorization to proceed with the space station finally came in February 1999, with the first design review in May. This involved design of both the 8-metric ton and 20-metric ton versions of the station. A vacuum chamber with a diameter of 7 meters and a height of 12 meters had already been built to test the station.

In February 2001 it was decided to proceed with development of a next generation of modern Chinese launch vehicles. These were to begin flying in 2008, and would be used for launch of the larger 20 metric ton station modules of up to 5 m diameter.

In June 2001 it was revealed publicly that China would implement its Project 921 space program in three phases. Wang Yongzhi, the chief manned spaceflight engineer and designer, told a conference held in Beijing that the first phase would be consist of the Shenzhou - launch of single manned spacecraft over a series of unmanned and manned flights, demonstrating flight of Chinese astronauts in near-Earth orbit and their safe return to earth. In orbit the astronauts would conduct earth observations and space experiments. In the second phase spacewalks, rendezvous and docking tests would be conducted. A space laboratory would be orbited, but only man-tended on a short-term basis and left in an automated mode between visits. The third phase would involve the launch of a larger space laboratory. This would be permanently manned and be China's first true space station.

In March 2002 it was announced that the permanent space station would have a launch mass of 20 metric tons, and be launched by the next generation rocket series. Later that year it was indicated that the launch of this 20 metric ton station would come no earlier than 2010, and possibly as much as 15 years later!

In December 2002 it was revealed that work had been underway on a robot arm for use on the station. A 20% scale model represented the fifth generation of prototypes of such arms built by Research Institute 502, the Beijing Institute of Control Engineering.

In February 2003 the Chinese released a picture of a mock-up of their 'Space Laboratory'. This was to be orbited no earlier than 2010 by the largest member of their next generation launch vehicle family. The 20 metric ton Space Laboratory consisted of a larger diameter module (4 to 5 m in diameter) with a single Russian APAS-style universal docking collar on the forward end. The aft smaller-diameter module was equipped with a large folding solar array. The larger module had portholes at the docking end, thrusters arranged about the outer surface, and was covered with white thermal blankets. It seemed to be designed, at least initially, for operation by a crew delivered by a single Shenzhou spacecraft, like the early Soviet Salyut space stations.

Thereafter, mention of the space station virtually disappeared from Chinese public statements. In February 2004 it was announced that the first space station would be launched only after Shenzhou 6, 7, and 8 had proven the basic spacecraft's rendezvous and docking capabilities. Launch of the 20-metric ton station would occur after 2010.

At the Zhuhai Air Show in November 2006, a new model of the station was displayed, docked to a Shenzhou spacecraft, which allowed it to be scaled. It now appeared very similar to the early Salyut space stations orbited by the Soviet Union in the 1970's. Continued delays in the New Generation launch vehicle series pushed first flight well past 2012.

Crew Size: 3.

Family: Chinese Manned Spacecraft, Space station. Country: China. Launch Vehicles: Chang Zheng 2E(A), CZ-NGLV, CZ-NGLV-504. Agency: CASC. Bibliography: 460.

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