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Shenzhou 6 FAQ!
Part of Shenzhou Family


Shenzhou with ELINT booms deployed.
Credit: © Mark Wade

Quick facts on the Shenzhou 6 mission.

  • What are the main military purposes of this mission? Will the capsule carry a high-resolution camera like Shenzhou 5? And other electronic surveillance and imaging equipment?The carrying of two crew and manned use of the orbital module for the first time will reduce the military equipment aboard Shenzhou 6. One image purporting to show Shenzhou 6 in assembly indicates it will carry only a 1.6-m resolution CCD reconnaissance camera in the nose package. However active use of the camera by a crew on board would probably be a significant mission objective. Tests like this using the Soviet Almaz military space station in the 1970's seemed to decisively prove that manned operation was not actually worth the extra mission payload and complexity.

  • What are the main differences form Shenzhou 5? What will the two astronauts do for the four or five days they are in orbit? What kind of sleep/work/eating patterns will they have?The announced mission will be 119 hours long, with a crew of two. The orbital module will be entered by the crew for the first time and the crew will live and sleep there. Three two-man crews trained for the mission, but the final crew will only be selected a few days before the flight. The most likely candidates will include the back-ups to the Shenzhou 5 mission, Nie Haisheng and Zhai Zhigang. Wu Jie and Li Qinglong, the first astronauts to be trained in the 1990's, are other possible candidates. Medical observations and operation of the mainly military experiments aboard will keep the crew well occupied.

  • What are the greatest risks for China in this mission? Or will China's apparently meticulous planning ensure that there are relatively few risks? Despite five previous Shenzhou flights, the Shenzhou is still in its infancy from a development point of view, and a riskier vehicle than the Soyuz or Shuttle. On one earlier unmanned Shenzhou mission, the orbital module depressurised and the re-entry vehicle evidently crashed on landing. The current model of the Russian Soyuz has been flown 61 times, and Soyuz of all types and derivatives have flown 250 times. The reusable American shuttle has flown 113 times. The Shenzhou, so early in its production life, can be expected to have yet uncovered dangers.

    Unlike the American Shuttle, and like Soyuz, Shenzhou is equipped with a launch escape tower, which can pull the crew capsule away from the booster in case of a failure or explosion. Such an escape system has saved Russian Soyuz crews on one occasion over the years (Soyuz T-10-1). But there are many other dangers for an astronaut in a Soyuz-type spacecraft. There can be a launch booster failure after the escape tower has separated (Soyuz 18-1 - but as with the Soyuz, Shenzhou has a method of escaping in such a situation). During the landing sequence, there can be failure of the retrorockets (Salyut 6 EP-5-1 - but this is supposed to be survivable aboard Soyuz or Shenzhou due to shock absorbers in the crew seats), depressurisation of the capsule (Soyuz 11 - but the Shenzhou crew will use space suits to protect them in case of such an event and the crew can even eat while in their suits), failure of the service module to jettison (Soyuz 5 - but the Soyuz design proved itself to barely allow survival of the crew member in such an event), failure of the guidance system (ISS EP-4 - meaning an 11 G but survivable re-entry on Shenzhou), failure of the parachute system to deploy (Soyuz 1 - but Shenzhou has air bags to force the parachutes out of their containers), or landing in remote or rough terrain (Soyuz 23, Soyuz 18-1). A most serious problem would be uncommanded separation of the heat shield in orbit, a problem inherent in the Mercury, Soyuz, and Shenzhou designs (Mercury MA-6). But the cause of any future disaster is always the combination of circumstances that one has not foreseen…

  • What aspects of this mission will US space personnel watch most closely, and why? Are they interested in learning anything from China, now that some senior US space officials are saying the whole space shuttle program was a mistake?NASA officials will closely watch the flight, since the design of Shenzhou is the same they have mandated contractors to follow for the CEV that will replace the shuttle. Any failure aboard Shenzhou could call the CEV design into question, and at a minimum lead to changes in the concept to prevent a similar failure mode. The NASA administrator has admitted that the shuttle and ISS space station programs were a mistake, thereby trashing 35 years and a half trillion dollars of NASA work. According to this point of view, the Shenzhou design, which follows that first conceived by American and Soviet engineers in 1960, is the way to go.

  • Is there a US-Chinese Race to the Moon? US Congressman Ken Calvert has made the Chinese program a stalking horse, trying to talk up a new race to the moon as a method of securing funding for NASA. But the caution, slow paced, one-launch-per-year Shenzhou development program is not a race in any normal sense of the word. Chinese scientists have discussed a Chinese lunar base, but this is no more an approved project than NASA's numerous Mars expedition concepts have been over the last 40 years. China's current plans do not extend beyond using Shenzhou with a 20-tonne space station, and that is not planned until after 2010. That said, China is developing the launch vehicles that would allow it to mount expeditions to the moon by around 2020, and Shenzhou is suitable to take men to the moon and back. So the technology will be available if China decides to pursue such a course.

  • What aspects of this mission will US defense personnel watch most closely, and why? US defence personnel will look for any military experiments carried out during the mission, with an emphasis on experiments supporting their worst fear, a Chinese anti-satellite capability. These could involve multi-spectral space-to-space experiments to assist in design of anti-satellite sensors, or manoeuvring of Shenzhou to demonstrate rendezvous with "non-co-operative" satellites.

  • What about future missions? How will does this one fit in to the whole Shenzhou programme, and preparation for things like docking and space walks? Is a docking manoeuvre planned for Shenzhou 8 (would Shenzhou 8 dock with Shenzhou 7 and form China's first rudimentary "space station"?) Shenzhou 5, the first manned flight, concluded Phase 1 of the Project 921 manned space program. Shenzhou 6 is the first flight in Phase 2, which is set to run through 2010, and will involve a series of flights to prove the technology, conduct rendezvous and docking operations in orbit, and operate an 8-tonne spacelab. This spacelab would presumably be a Shenzhou spacecraft with an extended orbital module and no re-entry vehicle. Chinese space officials have said that Shenzhou 7 will prove orbital manoeuvring and rendezvous capabilities. Some reports say that it may include a spacewalk. An ambitious scenario would be for it to rendezvous with the Shenzhou 6 orbital module (based on previous practice, this would continue in orbit until mid-2006). This could explain the long delay in launching Shenzhou 6 after the Shenzhou 5 flight, which broke the previous one-launch-per-year pattern. Shenzhou 7 could be launched in the first half of 2006, while the Shenzhou 6 orbital module was still aloft, and rendezvous with the Shenzhou 6 orbital module. Docking would be out of the question, unless pictures released purporting to show Shenzhou 6 in assembly are in fact of an earlier spacecraft. If Shenzhou 7 does not rendezvous or dock with the Shenzhou 6 orbital module, then logically the next mission would be a dual launch, with Shenzhou 7 and Shenzhou 8 docking in orbit and carrying out a crew exchange as was done by Soyuz 4 and 5 in 1969. Only by around 2008-2010 would Phase 2 reach its planned culmination with several Shenzhou missions docking with a man-tended 8 tonne separately-launched Spacelab.

    Project 921 Phase 3, involving orbiting of a 20-tonne Space Station, will not occur until after 2010. Will China begin operations of a permanently-inhabited space station just as Europe and America abandon the International Space Station? An interesting scenario…

  • Is there any greater chance now that China may want to (and be allowed to) co-operate in the international space station? The purpose of the Shenzhou program is to improve China's technical base and international prestige at relatively modest cost. There is little likelihood that China will invest in the immensely costly NASA/ESA/JASA/RKA International Space Station, which in any case is in jeopardy with NASA's flagging support. Aviation Week has recently suggested that NASA seek Chinese co-operation in going to Mars. But given NASA's track record as a poor partner in international space projects, the Chinese might rightly see this as the kiss of death for their space program. In the 1970's, when the Soviet space industry was in crisis, the Russians pursued the Apollo-Soyuz Test Program as a means of understanding the management techniques and technology that allowed America to win the space race. Unfortunately, in the 21st Century, there is nothing the Chinese might seek to learn from NASA except how not to run a space program, and how to not do so at the greatest possible expense…

  • Could China's broad space programme and military modernisation lead to a "space war"? The US military is concerned about this scenario, since the American use of space technology is considered to give them an enormous leverage in conflicts on earth. The Americans, having become accustomed to a robust space-based command and control system, have a lot to lose in such a conflict. Any opponent has little to lose, and a lot to gain, by attacking American space assets. This can be done from the ground, using high powered lasers or directed-radio energy weapons to disable rather than destroy American satellites. Use of direct space-to-space interceptors is expensive and unlikely. But as Soviet fielding of their rather unthreatening IS-A anti-satellite system showed, just the idea of such a system is enough to send the United States into fits of asymmetrically expensive countermeasures…

  • Why is the Shenzhou 6 mission getting less attention than Shenzhou 5 from the community of space enthusiasts? Perhaps one reason is that the Chinese have released a tremendous amount of public information about their space program since Shenzhou 5. The aura of mystery, at first like that of the Russian program in the 1960's, was dispelled. That makes the whole enterprise less requiring any speculative analysis, less intriguing, and therefore less interesting. It has also become clear that the measured base of the Chinese space program will not replicate the breathless pace of the moon race of the 1960's, which made manned spaceflight a kind of cosmic-level international sporting event.

  • Is the Shenzhou a copy of the Soyuz? The Shenzhou spacecraft appears similar to the Russian Soyuz, but is different in dimensions (slightly larger and heavier) and does not seem to use any detailed parts copied from the Soyuz or built under license. Therefore although it follows the classic layout of the Soyuz, adopts many of the same technical solutions, and the re-entry vehicle has the same shape, it cannot be considered strictly a 'copy'. And if one considers Shenzhou to be a copy of the Soyuz, then was the Soyuz design stolen - from the American General Electric Apollo spacecraft proposal?

  • Who was the first Chinese person to fly in space?The People Republic of China's Yang Liwei was not the first person born in China to fly in space. William Anders, born in Hong Kong, orbited the moon in December 1968. Shannon Lucid, born in Shanghai, holds the world record for a woman for time in space (over 223 days in space on 5 spaceflights). And physicist Taylor Wang, also born in Shanghai, spent seven days in space aboard shuttle mission STS-51-B in 1985.

  • What should the Chinese astronauts be called in English? During the Cold War, the press adopted the Russian word 'cosmonaut' to refer to Soviet astronauts. This became muddled after 1990, when 'astronauts' from many nations served aboard Mir and the International Space Station. The French term 'spationaut' never became popular in English. Chen Lan, who pioneered coverage of the Chinese space program on the web, coined the artificial word 'taikonaut', from the Chinese word for outer space. The Chinese term, used in official statements and the national press, is 'yuhangyuan', which unfortunately is pretty difficult for Westerners to spell, remember, or pronounce. An appeal not to repeat the mistakes of the past - why not just call them Chinese astronauts?

  • When will the first Chinese woman fly in space? In July 2005 China officially announced it had selected its first group of 35 women from 200,000 applicants to be trained as astronauts. The women are between 17 and 20 years old, and will be trained for a life career as astronauts, indicating a very long-term Chinese commitment to manned (and womanned!) spaceflight. They will initially train as pilots at the Chinese military's Aviation University. The first Chinese woman in space will fly in space by 2010, presumably to a mission aboard the 8-tonne Project 921-2 or 20-tonne Project 921-3 space station. The female astronauts will be trained for both flight commander and on-board engineer positions.

  • Describe the Shenzhou 6 spacecraft - briefly? Shenzhou 6 will have a total weight of 8000 kg (17,600 lbs), is 9.25 m (30 ft) long and has a maximum diameter of 2.8 m (9.2 ft). It is powered with four solar panels that generate a maximum of 3500 watts of power. It consists of three modules that separate during flight. These are:

    • The orbital module, mounted in the nose, provides living space for the astronauts and contains scientific or military equipment that can be different from flight or flight. It separates before retrofire and remains in orbit after the crew has returned to earth, continuing its scientific or military observation mission. In the future it may be left behind, docked to a Chinese space station.
    • The re-entry vehicle, mounted in the centre, has is the same 'headlight' shape as the Russian Soyuz capsule, and brings three astronauts back to earth. After the retrofire is completed, it separates from the service module. After re-entry, a single main parachute is deployed. Just before landing, the heat shield is jettisoned and small rockets fire for a soft landing in the central Asian desert.
    • The service module, mounted aft, contains the main spacecraft power system, and the liquid propellant rocket system that allows the spacecraft to manoeuvre in orbit and return to earth. It has four main engines at the base, much more powerful than those on Soyuz. It separates from the re-entry capsule after retrofire and is burned up in the atmosphere.

  • What is the origin of Shenzhou's booster? The CZ-2F booster is a version of the earlier CZ-2E, itself descended from the first Chinese ICBM, the DF-4. This was designed under the leadership of brilliant American-educated Tsien Hsue-shen, the Father of the Chinese space and rocket programmes. The controversy rages even fifty years later -- was Tsien driven to Mao's China by McCarthyite paranoia, or was he a Communist agent all along? Did the DF-5 incorporate technology Tsien learned of in the earliest design phase of the American Titan rocket?

More Information:
  • Chinese astronauts -- Yuhangyuan Index by Selection Group

  • Shenzhou spacecraft in detail and prior flight history

  • The next step -- the Chinese Space Laboratory

  • Distant dreams - the Chinese Lunar Base

  • Jiuquan launch site in detail and flight history

  • CZ-2F launch vehicle in detail and prior flight history

  • Shuguang 1 - China's cancelled secret project to put a man in space - in 1973!

  • China's space program history and plans

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