After four unmanned trial flights, China's first-ever piloted spacecraft, the Shenzhou V is set to soar. When it does, and if successful, China will be propelled into an exclusive country club status: the third nation capable of independently rocketing humans into Earth orbit.
Chinese space officials have hinted at a multi-pronged human spaceflight program, including space station construction, as well as eventual travel to the Moon, all by 2020.
China's first piloted space journey could occur as early as next month.
Xu Guanhua, China's Science and Technology Minister, said last week that preparations for the historic flight were going smoothly, although no specific date for the takeoff was identified.
Rumor has it that the piloted Shenzhou V could be airborne as early as October 1, Chinese National Day -- the founding of the country. Others speculate that mid-October appears to be the liftoff time frame. Several factors will dictate the launch date insist Chinese space planners, such as weather, solar activities and space radiation levels around Earth.
Even the issue of threatening space debris is being addressed.
During a second national space debris workshop held in Shanghai last month, expert said that Shenzhou V would be outfitted with an alarm system to avoid collisions between the craft and chunks of speeding space flotsam.
Du Heng, chief scientist at the Center for Space Science and Applied Research under the Chinese Academy of Sciences said the hardware allows the spacecraft to automatically dodge space litter.
Whenever Shenzhou V roars into space it will be perched atop a Long March 2F booster, departing from Jiuquan Space Launch Center in northwestern Gansu Province. Touchdown of the craft is expected to be on Inner Mongolian grassland.
From late 1999 into early 2003, four shakeout flights of the Shenzhou spaceship have taken place.
The Shenzhou V features 3 modules, from front to end: An orbital module holding science equipment; the crew-carrying ascent/decent module; and a service module with attached solar panels, loaded with electronics gear and rocket engines.
While the crew compartment can hold as many as three passengers, Shenzhou V is seemingly to be operated by a lone pilot.
The national program for lifting its first pilot into space was given the go-ahead by the Chinese government in 1992, and is tagged Project 921.
Drawing upon the country's top jet fighter pilots, an initial group of 14 astronauts, have been in training. They are reportedly all under 30 years of age, each with a flying time of over 1,000 hours. Of this carefully picked individuals, two of them are apparently trainers for the other astronaut candidates.
China's space officials are likely to announce who will fly into space days before the launch.
There are still lots of unknowns about the impending flight. Based on reports by Chinese media outlets, both the launch and landing of Shenzhou V will take place during daylight. Flight time for Shenzhou V is considered to be less than 24 hours.
Earlier this year, in a wide-ranging discussion with the People's Daily, some details were offered as to how the Shenzhou booster was human-rated.
Huang Chunping, deputy chief commander of the Jiuquan Space Launch Center was also identified as commander-in-chief of the specially outfitted booster that will lift Chinese space pilots into orbit, tagged the "Shenjian"--Long March 2F rocket.
Huang said that there is enormous pressure to assure the readiness of a piloted Shenzhou vehicle. He noted that both Russia and the United States carried out a dozen or so test shots prior to sending their first astronauts into space. In contrast, China is moving into manned flight after only four unpiloted missions, he said.
The Shenjian-Long March 2F booster features a range of safety systems. An automatic fault-detection and escape system is tied to 310 kinds of failure modes, Huang said. In designing one element of the escape system, a Russian design approach was once considered. "But they set the price at US$10 million. Finally we solved the problem on our own," he added.
More than 3,000 factories and tens of thousands of scientists, technicians and managers are engaged in shaping China's manned space project, Huang said in the People's Daily interview.
Safer than Soyuz
It's clear that the Shenzhou booster has gotten a technology makeover, said British space analyst, Clark.
"The Long March 2F has improved guidance and control equipment. They've upgraded the engines and have new computer systems onboard. Plus, of course, there's the launch escape system," Clark said.
Clark said that the Chinese have taken a different path in designing Shenzhou's escape system -- a better approach than that adopted for Russia's Soyuz vehicle.
Thanks to an extra set of motors mounted on the booster's shroud, escape of a Shenzhou craft from a failing Long March can be done at a very high altitude.
"So in that sense, I think Shenzhou is even safer than Russia's Soyuz," Clark said.
Another design difference from Soyuz is Shenzhou's orbital module.
Once the Shenzhou 5 flight draws to a close, its forward module will be released, as has been the case in the last three of Shenzhou's four test trips. Packed with experiments, and powered by its own solar panels, the orbital module is likely to stay spinning around the Earth for six months. While floating through space, the Shenzhou segment can be maneuvered by ground controllers.
Before Shenzhou 5 flies, China's ever-growing technological aptitude has already spawned a number of deals with other spacefaring nations.
For instance, China and the European Union reached an agreement on September 18, a deal that has China participating in the Galileo project. This agreement spurs partnerships on satellite navigation in a wide range of sectors, notably science and technology, industrial manufacturing, and service and market development.
Another example is last month's agreement between China and Russia to plan a course together in future space exploration efforts.
No doubt that the successful flight of a piloted Shenzhou V would catapult China into top-drawer status in terms of nations capable of doing heady things in space.
"I am excited that there is a third nation that has made the investment in human spaceflight and will soon join the US and Russia in this grand experiment," said Roger Launius, Chair of the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. .
(China Daily September 25, 2003)