Wenxian ZHANG

China began work on its Shenzhou Space project in 1992. Since 1999, the project has successfully launched seven spacecraft, three of which were manned (starting with the Shenzhou-5 in 2003), and one of which (in 2008) included a space walk. The space program is a source of national pride, a demonstration that China has the technology to keep pace with other developed countries.

China began planning for manned space flight in the late 1970s. Because of shifting political and economic priorities, though, no serious work was begun until 1992, with the creation of Project 921. In 1994 the project name was changed to the Shenzhou Space project. The project reportedly was named by then President Jiang Zemin (in office 1993–2003). Shenzhou ?? means “divine craft.” To date, there have been seven Shenzhou missions. The first manned mission was Shenzhou-5 in 2003. The project has become a tremendous source of pride for China, as it became the third country capable of independently rocketing humans into earth orbit.

After mastering ballistic reentry techniques in its space program, China began the Shuguang-I (meaning “Dawn”) project in the late 1970s to launch Chinese astronauts into space. However, the project was postponed for two decades because of political and financial reasons, although during the 1980s Chinese experts debated whether to use a modest ballistic capsule design or a highly advanced two-stage reusable space shuttle.

On 21 September 1992, Project 921 was begun, with some help from Russia, to develop a spacecraft with the capacity for human flight by 2000. In 1994 the spacecraft was formally named Shenzhou.

The early Shenzhou spacecraft were similar to the Russian Soyuz spacecraft but larger and with all-new construction. The spacecraft had three modules: the orbital module at the front, the reentry capsule in the middle, and the service module at the base. Unlike the Soyuz, the orbital module was equipped with its own propulsion, solar power, and control systems, allowing autonomous flight. Since the late 1990s, Shenzhou spacecraft have been launched on Long March-2F (LM-2F) booster rockets from Jiuquan, Gansu Province, in northwest China.

The first launch of a Shenzhou spacecraft was on 21 November 1999. It orbited the Earth fourteen times before it landed under parachute in Inner Mongolia twenty-one hours after liftoff. The Shenzhou-2 spacecraft was launched on 9 January 2001. It completed 108 orbits over a seven-day flight. Shenzhou-3, launched on 26 March 2002, carried human physical monitoring sensors and dummy astronauts. The last unmanned flight, Shenzhou-4, was launched on 30 December 2002. It also carried a test dummy and performed several scientific experiments.

The first piloted spacecraft was Shenzhou-5, launched on 15 October 2003. Yang Liwei was China’s first astronaut, or taikonaut (taikong means “space” or “cosmos” in Chinese) or yuhangyuan (Chinese for “space navigators”). Yang orbited the earth for twenty-one hours and became a national hero. The second manned flight, Shenzhou-6, was launched 12 October 2005, carrying two taikonauts, Nie Haisheng and Fei Junlong. By most accounts this flight is considered the event that proved China was capable of carrying out its own space program. Finally, on 25 September 2008, Shenzhou-7 was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, carrying a crew of three. The three-day mission featured a successful space walk. China joined the United States and Russia as the only countries to have completed a space walk.

Thousands of Chinese engineers and technicians from more than three hundred organizations have contributed to the research, design, assembly, test, launch, and recovery of Shenzhou spacecraft. By the end of 2003, when the first flight carrying a person was accomplished, China reportedly had spent $2.3 billion on the project, of which $1 billion was spent on the building of infrastructure. Despite the cost, the space program is a tremendous source of pride for millions of Chinese. When Shenzhou-6 was launched on 12 October 2005, President Hu Jintao watched it live at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center and had a brief conversation with the two astronauts, telling them “the motherland and people are proud of you” (People’s Daily, 2005).

Hailing the successful five-day space flight, Premier Wen Jiabao reiterated China’s policy of peaceful use of space. Many people view the project as a way for China to demonstrate its world power status, and countries around the world have had quick and generally positive responses. The U.S. State Department congratulated China on the successful launch, and the Russian Federal Space Agency welcomed another power to the “space club” and looked forward to further cooperation in all areas.

Inspired by its success, China has ambitions for future space exploration. Although no official projects have yet been begun, China hopes to put a space station in orbit by 2010, to land an unmanned probe on the moon by 2011, and to land a taikonaut on the moon by 2017.

Further Reading

Chen Lan. (2006). Go, Taikonauts. Retrieved December 22, 2007, from http://www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/Launchpad/1921/

Grondine, E. (2008). Chinese manned space program: Behind closed doors. Retrieved December 22, 2007, from http://www.astronautix.com/articles/chidoors.htm

Oberg, J. (2003). China’s great leap upward. Retrieved December 22, 2007, from http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa006&articleID=0005B4B6-1CEC-1F5D-905980A84189EEDF

People’s Daily Online. (2005). Chinese president talks with Shenzhou-VI astronauts. Retrieved August 26, 2008, from http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/200510/15/eng20051015_214554.html

Pollpeter, K. (2008). Building for the future: China’s progress in space technology during the Tenth 5-Year Plan and the U.S. Response. Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute Press.

Source: Zhang, Wenxian. (2009). Shenzhou Space Project. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1965–1966. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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