Chinese astronauts return from space
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: October 16, 2005
Returning home to a hero's welcome, two astronauts parachuted to a soft landing in the steppes of northern China shrouded in a veil of pre-dawn darkness to punctuate a five-day flight in space that served as a key test before more complex missions are undertaken in the next few years.
The Shenzhou 6 return capsule floated to Earth in Siziwang Banner, a county in north China's Inner Mongolia province. Touchdown was at 2033 GMT (4:33 p.m. EDT) Sunday, or in the wee hours of Monday morning in Beijing, state media sources reported.
The mission ended with a duration of 115 hours and 32 minutes, or around four-and-a-half hours shy of a full five days in space. During that time, the craft flew over two million miles and completed over 75 trips around Earth.
Recovery teams had been on standby throughout the mission, and they soon swept in to the landing site to retrieve astronauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng from their seats inside the spacecraft. Officials say Shenzhou 6 landed less than a mile from the expected touchdown point, and around four miles from the site of the ending of the Shenzhou 5 mission in 2003, which was China's first manned spaceflight.
Rescue forces consisted of around fourteen ground vehicles, at least four helicopters, and a team of some 300 people, who worked feverishly to quickly get to the capsule, which reports indicate landed upright, the Xinhua news agency said.
Helicopter pilots first sighted a light signal from the spaceship less than ten minutes after landing, and ground teams reached the capsule less than a half-hour later. Still clad in their spacesuits, the astronauts emerged from the hatch around an hour after touchdown, with Fei Junlong appearing first, followed by Nie.
Xinhua reported the pair was in good spirits and excellent health after their historic voyage, and images from Inner Mongolia showed the crew sitting in chairs re-adapting to Earth's gravity after receiving bouquets of flowers. Both said they were feeling well.
After brief medical checks and a photo opportunity, the astronauts then boarded a transport helicopter for the trip to a local airport, during which they ate a light meal -- their first on Earth in five days.
Once at the airport, the crew transferred to an airplane that took them to Beijing, where crowds of engineers and politicians awaited them. Also, the astronauts were to be re-united with their families upon arrival. The departure from Inner Mongolia occurred just three hours after their fiery return from space.
Monday morning's landing was heralded with praise from Chinese leaders gathered at the Beijing control center. Wu Bangguo, chairman of the standing committee of China's National People's Congress, gave remarks after space commander Chen Bingde declared success. Included in the speech were official congratulatory messages from the communist party and China's central military commission.
Premier Wen Jiabao met with the crew before they left the planet and observed the blastoff at Jiuquan launch center last Wednesday. President Hu Jintao spoke with the crew in space on Saturday.
The return of Shenzhou 6 had been expected to occur early Monday, Beijing time. However, this mission's landing was several hours earlier than that of Shenzhou 5, which touched down at around sunrise.
In preparation for their homecoming, Fei and Nie donned their white spacesuits used during launch and re-entry in their final hours in space.
Officials at the mission's Beijing control center first sent the command to jettison the craft's orbital habitation module at 1944 GMT (3:44 p.m. EDT), leaving it to stay in orbit for several more months to conduct further tests and experiments without human presence. The propulsion module and entry vehicle remained attached, and braking rockets were then ordered to fire moments later to slow the spacecraft to allow its return.
Before encountering the upper fringes of Earth's atmosphere, the disposable propulsion block was released from the return capsule. It is purposely designed to burn up during re-entry.
The craft's ground track took it over the Atlantic Ocean before the retrofire maneuver took place off the west coast of South Africa, experienced satellite observer Ted Molczan told Spaceflight Now.
As Shenzhou 6 fell toward Earth, Molczan said it passed over central Africa, Saudi Arabia, and made landfall in Asia near Pakistan before entering Chinese airspace, which Xinhua reported occurred at 2008 GMT (4:08 p.m. EDT).
Shenzhou 6's crew was cut off from communicating with controllers for several minutes due to a blackout period as it streaked through the upper atmosphere surrounded by high temperature plasma particles. However, communications were soon regained and ground radars picked up returns from the craft before it deployed a sequence of three parachutes to stabilize and slow the capsule. As it reached a point just a few feet above the surface, detectors sensed the approaching ground and thrusters were fired to further soften the impact.
China's second human spaceflight picked up where Yang Liwei left off in the flight of Shenzhou 5 in 2003, during which Yang became China's first man in space. That 21-hour mission was eclipsed in duration five-fold this time around.
Other firsts in the Chinese space program included the opening and entry of the astronauts into the orbital module, which housed additional supplies such as a sleeping bag, tastier food and drink rations, and sanitation equipment.
The crew also completed a number of unspecified experiments in the life and material sciences, Earth observation, and environmental studies.
Perhaps the most crucial objective of the mission involved the testing of the functionality of the spacecraft far beyond what was learned during the comparatively straightforward flight of the first manned mission. The astronauts reportedly conducted anti-disturbance tests to ensure the craft could handle rough movement inside the capsule, and planners pushed the limits of the design to gain confidence in its performance before more ambitious missions in the future.
The next mission in line is Shenzhou 7, which could launch as soon as late next year. Earlier reports have indicated the program's first spacewalk could be attempted on this flight. Later in the sequence, orbital rendezvous and docking operations are planned before China is expected to launch its first space station after 2010.