Shenzhou 9 keeps China’s manned space program on course
China’s successful Shenzhou 9 manned rocket continues to energize its space program as Beijing continues to plan for another launch next year.
The mission that ended June 29, 2012, showcased the slow, careful and patient way the program is progressing, in striking contrast to the dramatic speed and giant steps of the U.S and former Soviet Union space programs of the 1960s.
The fourth successful manned Chinese space mission since 2003, Shenzhou 9 was the second three-person capsule to be sent into space and was the longest-duration Chinese space mission yet. For the first time, a female taikonaut [Chinese term for astronaut] Liu Yang, served on the crew and performed flawlessly.
The Shenzhou 9 crew, 33-year-old People’s Liberation Army Air Force pilot Yang, joined by mission commander Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang successfully carried out a manual-controlled docking with the 8.5 metric ton Tiangong-1 orbiting laboratory sent into orbit in September 2011. This was a vital step toward giving China the capability to construct and expand its own permanent orbiting space station, which it plans to do.
China’s achievements are not groundbreaking
While these achievements are important for China, they were not groundbreaking. U.S. and Soviet astronauts had successfully developed rendezvous and docking procedures with orbiting capsules, rocket and later, with their own space stations starting in the 1960s.
Even when completed, the Chinese space station will have an estimated size of 60 tons, far smaller than the 200 tons of the International Space Station operated by the United States, Russia, the European Union and Japan.
However, China now ranks second only to Russia in its capability to independently send its own human crews into Low Earth Orbit [LEO] for a wide variety of missions. Also, in the 40 years since the U.S. manned Apollo missions to the Moon ended, the United States and Russia [formerly the Soviet Union] have been content to restrict their manned space programs to LEO missions and scientific research.
China’ four manned missions since 2003 have all been integrated parts of a more ambitious long-term program to build Beijing’s own space station and then use it as a stepping stone for renewed manned missions to the Moon. Eventually, the Chinese program could move forward with Mars missions.
China continues to use reliable, mature and inexpensive technology to launch its space program.
China's Shenzhou class capsules have been developed slowly, thoroughly and conservatively. Shenzhou has been launched successfully four times, the first of which was in November 1999.
Space program shows organic evolution
The Shenzhou spacecraft, like the evolution of the U.S. Apollo spacecraft which grew out of the previous tried-and-tested Mercury and Gemini capsules, reflects an organic, orderly evolution from the earlier, more primitive designs it was based upon.
Shenzhou is constructed of more advanced and lighter components than the Soyuz used by Russia.
Shenzhou is advanced in protecting the lives of its crew. China’s Long March 2F booster rocket has an abort system to blast the capsule free from the booster in the case of a catastrophe.
The Chinese have also learned from their Russian mentors in giving priority to producing a stable, reliable and cost effective "big dumb booster." The Long March 2E cargo booster, which has been amended to carry the manned Shenzhou spacecraft in its 2F class, is conceptually similar to the Soviet/Russian Proton booster. It is not a spectacular super-rocket that blasts its payload all the way to the Moon as the Saturn did from 1968 to 1972. But it does not have to be.
What the Long March 2F provides is a solid, unspectacular work horse than can be cost-effectively produced in sufficient quantities to put crews into space on a regular basis and acquire crucial program experience and capability.
A cautious but highly competent and ever-developing "tortoise beats hare" design and testing philosophy has guided China's space program over the past two decades.
China stays in space race with small budget
“From the beginning, and throughout the development of the Chinese human spaceflight program, the goal was never to catch up or surpass other nations, but to avoid falling too far behind,” Gregory Kulacki, a China science programs analyst with the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Hindu newspaper.
The U.S. government funds the civilian space activities of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA] with $17.7 billion per year. John Pike, executive director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-based intelligence assessment organization, estimated China’s annual space program budget was more than $5 billion for 2012.
The Chinese also have succeeded in establishing high and reliable safety standards for manned launches even though their Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center is in one of the most remote and inhospitable regions of the world, the northwestern Gobi Desert. All four manned missions have been launched in different seasons of the year, proving the ability of the Chinese manned space program to operate reliable in the most extreme conditions of summer heat and winter cold.
It is still a long road from putting a single taikonaut into orbit to fulfilling its dreams of eventually constructing and operating orbiting space stations and even a moon base. But China has planned its space program for the long term. The next manned mission, Shenzhou 10, is scheduled for next year.