— Once the Beijing Summer Olympics are over,
will put on its next extravaganza – a third human spaceflight mission, this time featuring three of its taikonauts and an expected spacewalk.
Forty years after the
went through a series of multiple- flight orbital programs to progress from single-person capsules to spacecraft capable of carrying a crew of three into space,
has chosen to make that progression in just its first three missions.
The single-person Shenzhou 5 flight in 2003 made 14 orbits. It was followed in 2005 by the two-person voyage of Shenzhou 6, which lasted five days. With its next mission
will launch a three- person spacecraft and reportedly attempt its first spacewalk, also known as an extravehicular activity (EVA).
Western experts say
‘s faster evolution from single-seat spacecraft to three- person crews is a reflection of how much the state of the art has changed in four decades.
“Implications, as far as I can see … few, if any,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, an analyst of China’s space policy and chair of the National Security Decision-Making Department at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
Johnson-Freese said the U.S. Mercury program of the 1960s was spearheading research just to see if humans could swallow in space or how the human psyche would react once in Earth orbit. There were lots of medical questions, she said.
NASA’s Project Mercury was quickly followed by a salvo of 10 Gemini flights from March 1965 to November
all, there were 14 piloted Mercury and Gemini orbital missions in a five-year period plus two pilot-carrying Mercury missions, which were suborbital, Johnson- Freese said. “Technology development was incremental because it was all new, but consistent,” she said.
“The Chinese will have three flights with a successful mission next fall. They have been able to benefit from lots of lessons learned from both the Americans and the Russians. That is not to downplay the difficulty of the technology or the achievements of the Chinese … they just have the luxury of starting much higher on the learning curve,” she said.
Dean Cheng, an Asian affairs specialist at the Center for Naval Analyses in
‘s achievements are still very noteworthy even though each of them already has been done before.
, he said, can depend on designs similar to those proven to work by the
and the former
“It’s not like they need to engineer everything from scratch,” Cheng said. “But it is nonetheless impressive.”
“What is interesting about the Chinese effort is that they are doing it with so few flights. Four unmanned flights … then pow-pow-pow … one-man, two-man, three- man, EVA,” Cheng said.
He also stressed that there is a built-in danger for nations that ramp up their human spaceflight expertise, noting that both the
have lost astronauts in accidents. “You have to wonder if the Chinese can sustain a perfect space record,” he said. “Obviously, one hopes that they can.”
But Western analysts are not at all sure where
really is headed in human spaceflight.
Comparing China’s publicly stated space development plan to the U.S. space program’s heritage doesn’t quite work, said Roger Launius, senior curator for the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
needs to know about conducting a lunar trip, probably a circumlunar trip, on three missions seems a bit thin to me,” Launius said.
While the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs might have been exceptionally cautious – and thus took more time and a greater number of missions than the Chinese effort – the knowledge return from the American programs versus China’s three flights cannot be anywhere near each other, Launius explained.
“Let’s take the Gemini program,” Launius said. “A central reason for it was to perfect techniques for rendezvous and docking, EVA and long-duration flight. Assuming that these same skills will be required in a Chinese Moon program, and I believe they will, where will the knowledge and experience for them come from in these three missions?”
said the Gemini flights swamp
in terms of demonstrated skills. The country has yet to rack up the experience base of spacewalking, rendezvous and docking that is now standard in the
, he said.
“A core question, it seems to me, is this: Will ground simulation be able to compensate for the lack of orbital experience?” Launius said. “Perhaps, but I’m not sure.”
More acclaim than deserved?
Stepping back and taking a larger look at where
‘s human space program is headed, Launius observed: “Personally, I think the Chinese program is moving forward at a modest pace and is getting a lot of mileage out of the fact that it is a secret effort that forces us to speculate about it. It is receiving among the space community more acclaim than I think it deserves.”
said that there is enough in
‘s statements on future manned Moon missions to fuel Western speculation that the country has a vast program, immensely capable, and is seeking to at least equal the Americans in a Moon program of its own.
“There is no official Chinese evidence to support the concept of a Chinese human Moon program, despite the wishes of some inside the Chinese space program who would love to do it. Occasionally, someone will say something about this to Western media but official documents available do not say anything about such a program,” Launius said.
There are those in the
space community who would like to see
send taikonauts onto the Moon’s surface, Launius said, because they believe it would spark a new space race. “I’m not sure that would be the outcome of these Chinese efforts … but I also see no evidence for serious Chinese efforts in that direction,” he said.
Meanwhile, preparations to launch Shenzhou 7 are picking up speed in
According to Chinese news services, the spacecraft has undergone modifications to accommodate an airlock. A spacewalking-qualified space suit has been approved for flight. There have been extensive checkouts of the craft to fulfill its mission objectives.
What day the three-person crew takes off from the
on its Long March booster in October has yet to be announced. There have been comments about broadcasting the spacewalk live on television.
Moreover, the spacewalk mission – and the duties to be performed during the EVA – are considered crucial if
is going to construct a space laboratory or space station in Earth orbit.
Six taikonauts have been selected for the upcoming mission from 14 candidates – a crowd that included Yang Liwei,
‘s first space explorer who flew solo on Shenzhou 5. For Shenzhou 7, three will fly the actual mission with the others tagged as substitutes.
Also, Yuanwang 6, an ocean-going tracking ship, has been delivered for service in
to participate in the Shenzhou 7 flight and to assist in the slated spacewalk. It joins sister ship, Yuanwang 5, to take part in maritime space surveying and mission controlling operations.
Faren, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and a researcher at the China Spaceflight Technology Research Institute – credited as chief designer of China’s first five Shenzhou spaceships and chief consultant for Shenzhou 6 and Shenzhou 7 – was quoted by the Xinhua news agency in November 2006 as saying that plans are already under way for Shenzhou 8 and Shenzhou 9. He added that “the intervals between each launch will become shorter.”