Shenzhou 2 Launch Imminent, Chinese Manned Space Program Targets the Moon

By Marc Boucher
October 30, 2000
Filed under

Shenzhou spacecraft

Video of Shenzhou spacecraft recently exhibited in Hong Kong.

[video clip]
[larger image]

It was less than a year ago that China inaugurated its
manned space program with the successful launch of their
spacecraft “Shenzhou”. Shenzhou, meaning “magic vessel”
was unmanned during its maiden voyage. Shenzhou was
launched at 6:30 local time on 20 November 1999 from the
Jiuquan Satellite Launching Center in north-central China
aboard a Long March CZ 2F booster and orbited Earth 14
times during its 21 hour mission.

The spacecraft’s orbit was 196.3 km x 324.4 km orbit and
was inclined at inclination 42.6 with respect to the
Earth’s equator – half way between the 28 degree
inclination favored for non-ISS Space Shuttle flights
and the 51.6 degree inclination used by Russian space
stations and the ISS.

Shenzhou escape tower

Video of the escape tower engine. The escape tower on
the Long March 2F rocket which launches the Shenzhou allows the astronauts
in the recovery module to be jettisoned to safety in case the rocket fails
during liftoff.

[video clip]
[larger image]

Known for its penchant for secrecy, the openness with
which Chinese space officials spoke of this mission as
it was happening and the amount of information freely
released to outside media was almost as surprising as the
technical accomplishments of the mission itself.

More Than Just a Soyuz Copy

One quick glance at Shenzhou, and you can clearly see that
it was heavily influenced by the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
While the Chinese insist that the spacecraft was built
with Chinese technology, a regular series of cooperative
agreements regarding space technology over the years has
clearly paid off. Indeed, the rapid development of their
manned space flight program hints at a substantial amount
of assistance from Russia.

Shenzhou recovery module

[larger image]

The Shenzhou spacecraft consists of three sections; the
orbital module, the recovery module, and the propulsion
module. While the overall configuration is Soyuz-like, the
spacecraft tends to have larger dimensions that the Soyuz.
The reentry module is some 10 to 15 % larger than its
Soyuz counterpart. Shenzhou has more photovoltaic array
surface area and is likely to produce more electricity in
orbit than the standard Soyuz design.

The most radical difference in terms of design and
function between the Soyuz design and the Shenzhou is the
orbital module. Shenzhou’s orbital module has its own set
of solar panels (not used in the first flight), its own
propulsion capabilities (demonstrated after it separated
from the reentry module); a large hatch (one would assume
for EVAs); and a cluster of instruments at the forward
end of the module. While the much-expected Russian
androgynous docking adapter was not present on the first
flight, many expect that this feature can be added. Of
course, Shenzhou would need to have something to dock

The Long March CZ-2F Launch Vehicle

To get Shenzhou into orbit the Chinese used the new manned
rated launch vehicle Long March (Chen Zou) CZ-2F – a
variation upon its CZ-2E booster. The CZ-2F is the
largest and most capable launch vehicle the Chinese have
in their inventory. Ever efficient, the Chinese have
leveraged several uses together during the development of
this launch vehicle.

Shenzhou launch

[larger image]

In his 15
October 2000 Spacelift
column, Frank Sietzen notes
that “the first series of upgrades to the CZ-2E include
manrating the vehicle into the 2F configuration now used
as the Shenzhou launch vehicle. Changes here include the
vehicle’s guidance system, a launch escape system for the
piloted spacecraft, and more accurate orbital insertion
capabilities. While such would be needed for the accurate
tracking of the Shenzhou once in Earth orbit, such
accuracy has commercial potential in inserting satellites
into precise orbits, a critical function of any commercial
satellite launcher.”

China Shows Off

An exhibit featuring Shenzhou and other aspects of China’s
space programs was displayed recently in Hong Kong. The
scope and breadth of the exhibit is like no other that
China has ever presented. The Chinese showcased their
achievements in space displaying a full engineering mockup
of Shenzhou. Some actual items from its inaugural flight
were also on display. These included the parachute and a
variety of commemorative items carried inside the
spacecraft including postal items, flags, and seeds.
Some actual components from its inaugural flight were also
on display including the Shenzhou’s parachute.


Video of a recovered satellite.

[video clip]
[larger image]

In addition to items that flew on the first mission,
flight ready hardware was also on display: a payload
fairing that covers the Shenzhou and an escape tower from
a CZ 2F launch vehicle. The Shenzhou on display is
identical to the one that flew in space. It was unclear
from the description on the exhibit whether this was a
flight unit or a test model.

In addition to Shenzhou, artifacts from what China
considers its top 20 achievements in space this century
were also on display. With one quarter of the exhibit
set aside to showcase Shenzhou this was the Chinese space
program’s coming out party. The crowds that came to see
this showcase – and their reaction to what they saw –
reminded me of the crowds I have seen visiting the
Smithsonian Air and Space museum in Washington.

The Chinese are proud of their accomplishments – and it
showed. This exhibit was clearly intended to serve as a
signal to both China and the world that China is serious
about space and intends to be a serious participant in
human spaceflight in the future.

It was interesting to note that one of the memorabilia
items for sale at the exhibit is a board game called the
“Space Race Board Game”. The game was created by the Hong
Kong Space Museum and is meant to be educational, however
the title is suggestive.

What’s Next?

Shenzhou shroud

[larger image]

Persistent rumors would have us believe that a launch of
the next Shenzhou spacecraft is about to take place –
perhaps before the end of the year. Just as the Chinese
were openly promoting their accomplishments and
capabilities in Hong Kong they were still reserved when it
came to saying when the next one would take place.

This past week at the International Space Symposium in
Washington DC, Zhang Xinxia, president of the China Great
Wall Industry Corporation, stated that China would launch
two more unmanned experimental Shenzhou spacecraft before
sending their first astronauts into space.

He went on to say that this venture is “grand, complex,
and very expensive. It is highly risky and we need to be
very careful and will continue to make tests.” When asked
who would be the first person to fly in Shenzhou he
replied with a smile that this person would be Chinese.

China’s Space Program: Slightly More Open

While these statements are still lacking in detail, they
are a marked departure from comments made at the same
meeting a year earlier. On 3 November 1999, just days
before the launch of Shenzhou, Luo Ge, Director General of
Foreign Affairs of the China National Space Administration
spoke at the International Space Business Assembly in
Washington D.C. He was asked “Is China’s manned
spacecraft based upon Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft?” Luo was
less than forthcoming in his answer.

Luo replied that “the program is proceeding on schedule
and we do not see anything in the way. So long as the
finances are in place, we can launch at our convenience”.
When the initial question was asked, Luo replied that “the
spacecraft was designed, developed, and produced by
ourselves.” Luo Ge clearly chose his words carefully so as
to say something without saying anything.

Clearly China is moving towards a somewhat more open space
program. However, they make it abundantly clear by their
actions (or lack thereof) that they – and they alone –
will chose the time and place where information is
released and what information will be released. They also
seem to be moving ahead according to their own schedule –
not one subject to the public pressures that accompany the
American and Russian space programs.

China moon rendering

[larger image]

China Eyes The Moon

The Chinese, it seems, are now very interested in the
moon. Once again an exhibit is the where things are
revealed. Models on display at the Chinese Pavilion of
the Hanover Expo 2000 show Chinese astronauts on the moon
with a rover. According to the exhibit Chinese astronauts
would land on the moon in 2005 and eventually create a
permanent lunar base by 2015 to mine Helium-3 from the
lunar soil. Helium-3 is considered an excellent fuel
source that would be used in nuclear fusion plants. It
produces virtually no radioactive by-product.

Shortly after news of this exhibit began to circulate,
semi-official Chinese media sources sought to squelch
rumors by saying that robots would be sent to the Moon
well before China considered sending humans. No one
denied that China was interested in sending humans however.

What Does it All Mean?

Clearly China has an interest in exploring space and an
evolving capability to act upon this interest. Given that
the cost of space exploration is still significant, and
the fact that China is still not a wealthy country, one
would expect that China would seek to pace its efforts so
as to be commensurate with its more limited capabilities.
AS such, it would make sense to leverage as many systems
for multiple uses as possible – the Long March upgrades
and their dual human/commercial uses being one example.

The Chinese are also consummate pragmatists and
opportunists. If China is going to send humans to the
moon, you can bet that Shenzhou is a clear preview of how
they plan to do it. Wouldn’t it be ironic if China sent
its “yuhangyuan” (astronauts) to the moon using a
spacecraft modeled after the Soviet-developed Soyuz – a
spacecraft the Soviets hoped, but never had the chance to
use – to send its cosmonauts to the moon.

Shenzhou astronauts train

Space microclimate
simulated experimental module.

China mission control

Chinese mission control.

Related Links

  • 3 November 1999:
    Comments by Luo Ge, Director General,
    Department of Foreign Affairs China National Space
    Administration to the International Space Business
    Assembly (ISBA) held in Washington, D.C.

  • Shenzhou, Encyclopedia Astronautica

  • Chinese Space Activities, Federation of American Scientists

  • Go Taikonauts! (aka Dragon in Space)

  • China National Space Administration
  • SpaceRef co-founder, entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, nature lover and deep thinker.