China takes next step in human spaceflight
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: October 11, 2005
China took the next bold step in its quest for the high frontier Wednesday when a team of former military pilots blasted into Earth orbit from a desert launch pad to begin five days of intensive experiments and tests that will pave the way for further milestones in space in the coming years.
Two astronauts were aboard the Shenzhou 6 capsule as it flew into space atop a Long March 2F rocket that took off at 0100 GMT (9:00 p.m. EDT), or in the mid-morning hours at the remote Jiuquan launch site nestled in northwest China's Gansu province at the edge of the Gobi desert.
Live video of the launch showed officials clustered in a large control room, marking key points in the countdown and watching as the final moments ticked away before the mission made its fiery departure. As the clocks reached zero, one controller pushed the red launch command button, followed seconds later by ignition of the Long March's eight engines and liftoff.
The rocket ascended and disappeared into a cloud deck less than a minute after launch, but telemetry data streaming down from the vehicle indicated all was going well until the third stage engine was shut down and Shenzhou 6 was deployed into orbit. Controllers were seen smiling, clapping, and loudly cheering as each launch milestone was achieved.
Pre-launch targets were for an orbit ranging in altitude from a high point of 215 miles, to a low point of 124 miles, and with an inclination of 42.4 degrees. An adjustment burn is anticipated to occur in first few hours of the flight to circularize the orbit for the remainder of the mission.
Cameras mounted both inside and outside of the capsule showed the crew smiling and waving after successfully reaching space, and relayed dramatic scenes as the launcher quickly flew away from Earth and through clouds as boosters and rocket stages were jettisoned to fall back to the planet.
Confirmation of deployment of the craft's electricity-producing solar panels came within the first hour of the flight, and early communications with the crew indicated they were feeling well.
Originally rumored to be planned for later in the week, the beginning of the mission was likely moved up a day to avoid bad weather forecast to strike northwestern China over the next few days.
An official announcement of the identity of the crew was not made until the final hours before liftoff, when Chinese leaders visited astronauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng shortly before they left for the launch pad at Jiuquan. Among the visiting dignitaries were Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and members of the central committee of the communist party.
"Piloting the Shenzhou 6 spaceship, you will once again show to the world that the Chinese people have the will, confidence, and capability to mount new scientific peaks ceaselessly," the premier was quoted as saying by the Xinhua news agency.
The ruling communist party views China's space program as a crucial part of national prestige, and the flight is expected to garner much attention from Chinese citizens who were reportedly glued to broadcasts of the launch.
Both astronauts were part of an original group of fourteen training over the past few years for the opportunity to fly in space on Shenzhou 6. That number was recently reduced to six before a final selection was made.
They have been members of the astronaut brigade of the People's Liberation Army since 1998, along with Yang Liwei - China's pioneer space flyer that orbited Earth fourteen times two years ago this week. At 40 and 41 respectively, Fei and Nie are both from provinces in east-central China and are former pilots in the Chinese Air Force.
The astronauts were both finalists in the competition leading up to the flight of Shenzhou 5 in 2003, according to reports from Xinhua.
Shenzhou 6 received its crew about three hours before the launch around daybreak at Jiuquan, as frigid temperatures greeted the crew's entourage at the pad. Heavy snow showers were reported overnight, state-run media said.
Unlike the launch of Shenzhou 5, officials openly broadcasted video feeds of the liftoff internationally through web sites and the government-sponsored Central Chinese Television channels.
Also in contrast to China's first foray into outer space is the 119-hour planned duration of this mission. Shenzhou 5 and its sole occupant were in space for just 21 hours, and astronaut Yang Liwei was confined to his launch and entry seat throughout the flight.
Over the next five days, the Shenzhou 6 crew will enter the larger orbital module for additional living room and comfort. There the pair will reportedly begin a regimen of life sciences experiments and other unspecified activities. Also waiting for them in the orbital module are large foodstuffs, water, sleeping bags, a food heater, and improved sanitation equipment for use during their journey.
All told, over 110 technical modifications were made to the craft's design to improve Shenzhou 6 above earlier models.
Landing of the Shenzhou 6 entry capsule is expected in around five days, perhaps Monday of next week. The supposed October 17 parachuted return would see a touchdown in the northern China province of Inner Mongolia - the same locale that hosted previous Shenzhou landings.
As the first part of the next step in China's methodical space development plan, Shenzhou 6 will demonstrate longer space voyages with larger crews. Earlier confessions by senior officials have revealed that Shenzhou 7 is currently expected to fly next year to perform the program's first spacewalk, and that Shenzhou 8's mission in 2008 could rendezvous and dock with the orbital module left in space by Shenzhou 7.
Longer term plans call for a manned space station and more ambitious missions in the next decade.
Often wrapped in official secrecy, China's infant manned space program has been in development for over a decade, and the first unmanned prototype was deployed in space in 1999. Three more test flights followed, and the historic first manned mission was launched in October 2003, making China just the third nation to put a human into orbit after the former Soviet Union and the United States completed inaugural spaceflights over 40 years ago.