China's second manned spaceflight could be nearing
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: September 19, 2005
Recent reports indicate China's next manned venture into outer space is less than a month away. The mission will feature two Chinese military pilots-turned-astronauts that will give their Shenzhou 6 capsule a thorough shakedown in preparation for more advanced missions in the next few years.
The flight of Shenzhou 6 will mark the second in China's infant manned spaceflight program, following on the heels of the historic mission of Shenzhou 5 in October 2003. During that 21-hour voyage, astronaut Yang Liwei orbited Earth 14 times before wrapping up his mission by parachuting to a soft landing in the northern province of Inner Mongolia.
Yang visited military officials in the Chinese city of Nanjing over the weekend during an international space exhibition, and said the launch of Shenzhou 6 would occur in mid-October. Earlier reports from state-sanctioned news agencies said the mission would begin after the national holiday in the first week of October.
Shenzhou 6 will be shot into space atop a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan satellite launch center in northwest China's Gansu province, a region blanketed by the vast expanse of the Gobi desert.
China's space hero also declared he would not take part in the follow-up to his inaugural flight, saying he was happy to leave his seat to younger astronauts, according to the China Daily newspaper.
Shenzhou 6 will - for the first time in the Chinese program - carry two astronauts on a five-day mission in Earth orbit to confirm all is ready for next year's planned flight of Shenzhou 7, whose crew will perform the nation's first spacewalk.
With China's pioneer astronaut now out of the running, 13 of the original 14 candidate are assumed to be still competing for the two prized positions. Officials have said in the past that a final decision on the crew would not be made until shortly before the launch.
However, it was previously reported that the 14 pilots were paired in groups of two, and the absence of Yang Liwei leaves the number remaining in consideration in some doubt.
A new batch of astronaut trainees will be selected next year, with women included in the group for the first time.
The crew of next month's mission will enjoy more luxurious accommodations than Yang experienced, with additional living space provided by the orbital module that Shenzhou 6's crew will enter for the first time. The China Daily report also said the astronauts will have heated food, sleeping bags, and improved sanitary conditions.
Their objectives during the stay in space will likely include a variety of domestic research goals and military experiments, though details remain closely guarded in the clandestine program.
Subsequent flights will first test space rendezvous and docking procedures by 2008 with the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft docking with the abandoned orbital module left behind by the Shenzhou 7 mission. Officials will then turn their attention to plans for a possible space laboratory that could support human-tended research stints.