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Taikonauts Prepare for Liftoff

China's manned space program is only the tip of the iceberg in its bid to challenge the space status quo

13 min read

In 1999, after pursuing a modest program for close on 30 years, Chinese space engineers test-flew a space vehicle designed to carry humans. No one was aboard, but the world snapped to attention.

The feat bore undeniable witness to a new Chinese space strategy: to overtake the space efforts of Japan, Europe, and possibly even Russia. In fact, in the decade ahead, China may well become a strong No. 2, second only to the United States.

China's national strategy for space activities, including lofting astronauts, is no secret, at least in outline (China's astronauts have been dubbed taikonauts by some external observers, the taiko- prefix meaning space in Chinese). Last November the Information Office of the Chinese government's State Council issued a 12-page white paper on the subject. While long on philosophy and short on specifics, it provides insight into why Beijing has decided to pour precious resources into space activities, perhaps as much as US $1.5 billion per year.

"The continuous development and application of space technology has become an important endeavor in the modernization drive of countries all over the world," announced the opening paragraph. "The Chinese government has all along regarded the space industry as an integral part of the state's comprehensive development strategy." In addition, the paper claimed, "a number of satellite application systems have been established and have yielded remarkable social and economic benefits."

The rationale for this expensive endeavor was summarized in the June 2000 issue of Xiandai Bingqi, the monthly journal of a military technology research institute. "From a science and technology perspective, the experience of developing and testing a manned spacecraft will be more important to China's space effort than anything that their astronauts can actually accomplish on the new spacecraft," the article stated. "This is because it will raise levels in areas such as computers, space materials, manufacturing technology, electronic equipment, systems integration, and testing as well as being beneficial in the acquisition of experience in developing navigational, attitude control, propulsion, life support, and other important subsystems, all of which are vitally necessary to dual-use military/civilian projects."

Under their plan, the Chinese intend not just to catch up to and overtake foreign space achievements, but also to outdo them in specific areas. Activities they feel do not contribute to these goals will be ignored. (In their idiom, this is "concentrating superior forces to fight the tough battle and persisting in accomplishing something while putting some other things aside.")

More specifically, the intent is to build an impressive stand-alone space capability on a narrow, carefully designed technological base. That approach is unlike the advances on a broad front that characterized Soviet and U.S. space programs. It is also unlike the projects of the second tier of world space powers, such as the European Space Agency, Japan, Canada, and several European nations, which were also narrowly focused but which supplemented the programs of their senior partners, the United States and Russia.

Such a drive to overtake the Europeans and even the Russians in space is entirely credible, world space experts have assured IEEE Spectrum. "China certainly has the political will to forge ahead with its space program," said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor in the department of transnational security issues at Honolulu's Asia-Pacific Center on Security Studies and author of The Chinese Space Program: A Mystery Within A Maze (Krieger Publishing, 1998). "It recognizes all the internal and external prestige-related benefits of space that the U.S. and the FSU [former Soviet Union] did in the 1960s, as well as the technology-industrialization-economic benefits that pushed Europe into space later."

"It is possible that China will over the next five years come to match Europe's launch rate of around 10 launches a year," noted Brian Harvey, author of The Chinese Space Programme: From Conception to Future Capabilities (Wiley-Praxis, 1998). "Europe's launches will be mainly commercial and scientific, whereas China will concentrate on applications and its manned program. Unlike Europe, China's scientific program is small and this is likely to remain the case."

"A lot of misperceptions surround the Chinese space program," Harvey continued, referring to the tales of low-technology spacecraft and widespread copying of foreign designs. "A lot of them reflect a western cultural notion that the Chinese couldn't possibly master this kind of technology." It is more helpful, in his opinion, "to look at the way in which they have built their program up over the years--slowly, patiently, carefully, in a disciplined way, borrowing from elsewhere [as with the space suit pictured above], but only to a limited extent. These are characteristics of the Chinese space program, whether we like their politics or not."

Public and media perceptions are all-important, Harvey added. "If China puts astronauts into space in the next number of years, there will be a perception that it has reached space super-power status," he said.

Although China could try to build its own Salyut-class space station (the Salyuts were smaller predecessors of Mir that flew in the 1970's), the shifting geopolitical climate following the terrorist attacks of 11 September may make China a newly palatable major partner in the International Space Station.

Hainan home base

China's workhorse space booster fleet is composed mostly of variants of its Long March booster, which is based on its venerable Dong-Feng family of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). These rockets have been used to launch military, scientific, and civil applications satellites and have by and large satisfied both Chinese domestic users and commercial customers. However, within the past year, the nation's rocket experts have announced bold plans for an entire new family of space boosters to be developed over the next 10 years [see "Year of the Rocket," IEEE Spectrum, May 2001, pp. 62-68].

Whereas the most powerful current Chinese booster can place 9200 kg in orbit, the new family will be able to orbit up to 25 000 kg. That puts it on a par with the U.S. Titan-4, and ahead of the U.S. Space Shuttle and Russia's Proton booster.

The Long March boosters, like their ICBM ancestors, were designed to be transported from their factories to their inland launch sites by rail, a severe constraint on their dimensions. Inland launch sites "are undesirable," according to a recent newspaper interview of a Chinese space official named Long Yuehao. A chief designer at Beijing's Chinese Academy of Launching Technology, where the Long March rockets were designed, Long Yuehao said the inland sites pose a danger to the surrounding areas following launch, and are difficult for larger carrier rockets to reach by rail.

The individual stages of the new boosters will be large enough to require transport by barge, rather than rail, from factory to launch site. This requirement necessitates a base with access to deep water. A coastal region with open ocean to the east and south would be ideal, and such a base is now under construction at Wenchang on Hainan Island, the site of the recent U.S. EP-3 spy plane incident. Initially, two launch pads for Long March boosters are being built. Within the next decade, the base could replace two of China's three inland space launch sites.

The Heavenly Vessel

Key to the future of Chinese astronaut missions is a 7200-kg spacecraft called the Shenzhou, or Heavenly Vessel [see drawing]. Previously known as Project 921, the vehicle made its first space mission, on autopilot without a crew, on 20-21 November 1999. It circled Earth 14 times, then landed, and only then was an announcement of its flight released.

The Shenzhou was launched from Jiuquan in Inner Mongolia, heading a bit to south of due east, atop a Long March-2F rocket, which resembles the U.S. Titan-4 [see map].

The second flight of the spacecraft, still without any crew, took place last January. Dubbed Shenzhou-2, it was more complex than the previous year's mission. It lasted six days and involved frequent firings of steering rockets to change orbit. It also carried a broader suite of scientific research equipment and recoverable samples as well as some live animal subjects. (As this article went to press, preparations were in full swing for a third unmanned test flight.)

Shenzhou-2 incorporated notable improvements. Power and data cabling was upgraded, weighing over 100 kg less than on the first vehicle. "Thanks to the cable modularity design, the cables in the [re-entry and orbital modules] are far less susceptible to damage, as the cables are no longer exposed," a newspaper account stated in July. The spacecraft's center of mass was moved farther aft, which improved the vehicle's controllability.

The spacecraft has three sections: a forward orbital module providing living quarters, a re-entry module behind it, and a service module with rocket engines and a pair of solar power panels with a total area of 20 m2. The re-entry module with a crew of up to three returns to Earth via parachute.

Photographs of the Shenzhou's landing capsule show striking similarities to the Russian Soyuz vehicle. In fact, the Chinese admitted to buying a Soyuz capsule early in the 1990s from the Russians. Accordingly, many observers concluded that the entire Shenzhou spacecraft was a copy. It was "little more than a slightly modified version of the old Soviet workhorse of space, the Soyuz," wrote Richard Ingham of Agence France Presse soon after its first flight in 1999.

"No, it's not," countered U.S. space engineer Andrew LePage, an independent consultant in Colorado. "All the vital systems and most of the hardware are of Chinese design." Most other independent experts agree, as do later reports. Apparently, while the Chinese had asked to purchase a fully functional Soyuz vehicle for study, the price demanded by Russia was so high that the deal never took place. The capsule they did get had been stripped before delivery of almost all space systems.

Further, the Chinese re-entry module is about 13 percent larger in all dimensions than the Russian Soyuz on which its design was based [see diagram]. Still, its interior arrangement is similar. There are three side-by-side reclining seats, as well as instrument panels mounted on the cabin wall and at the crew's feet. There are also hand controls and an optical sighting device, crucial for a space rendezvous.

But the other two modules used by China are quite different from their Russian and U.S. counterparts. The propulsion module has four large main engines, whereas the Apollo service module had one, and the Russian Soyuz has one main and one back-up engine. The orbital module sports its own solar panels and independent flight control system, so that it can continue as a free-flying mini-laboratory long after the re-entry module has brought the crew back to Earth.

Design influences in evidence

In at least two of the Shenzhou's features, however, direct copying of Soyuz designs is obvious. In both cases, and probably many more, the Chinese economized significantly on their development effort by using the mature, existing designs.

One feature they borrowed is the launch escape system. In the early 1960s, the Soviets adapted the tractor rocket design originally used by NASA on Mercury capsules, a nose-mounted rocket for pulling a spacecraft away from a malfunctioning booster. But during and after the intense 20-gravity rocket firing, severe stability problems made a safe separation of the crew module from the booster far from assured. As a simple fix, the Russians added four square flaps to the spacecraft's aerodynamic shroud; these flipped open during the escape tower firing and kept the vehicle on a steady course. The Chinese simply copied the Soviet four-flap kludge [see photo].

The Russians also built a rugged pressure survival suit for their cosmonauts inside Soyuz. Called the Sokol, the suit was introduced in 1972 after three cosmonauts died in a freak cabin depressurization during their return to Earth. The suit protects the crew but allows only arm and hand movements for flight control (a much more sophisticated version is used for space walks in orbit). The Chinese needed a suit with similar functions to the Sokol, so after obtaining samples of the suit's design, they copied it exactly, down to the stitching and color scheme [see feature photo].

So how imminent is the flight of Chinese astronauts? In spite of nationwide enthusiasm, no date has been set. Program officials are being quite cautious in their predictions.

Ground and sea catching up

In recent years, China has vastly improved the surface infrastructure of its space program. A new China Space Center in the southwestern suburbs of Beijing is home to a collection of pressure chambers, space vehicle simulators, an astronaut-carrying centrifuge, and a landing impact tower, where manned training capsules are dropped onto the ground. There are also classrooms and medical facilities for future space travelers. Two Chinese pilots went through general training courses at Russia's Gagarin Space Flight Training Center in Star City in 1996-97, and they reportedly are now directing the training program for China's flight candidates.

Also completed were four ocean-going tracking ships in the Yuan Wang (Long View) series, the last in July 1999. They have been deployed in the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans to monitor military missile tests and control rocket maneuvers putting satellites into geosynchronous orbit. To support Shenzhou flights, they were sent into the Indian Ocean [again, see map]. (Note that the Russians no longer have a similar fleet and rely on Western allies to extend their coverage.)

Chinese accounts have stressed the weather's challenge to the operation of ocean-going tracking ships. In the Southern Hemisphere, the calmest conditions occur in spring and summer, and the two Shenzhou flights so far have occurred in those periods.

A South Atlantic site is another necessity because the critical ground control functions for the return to China must be performed half an orbit before landing. In December 2000, the Chinese signed an agreement with Namibia in southwestern Africa for construction of a tracking site near the town of Swakopmund. An 85-by-150-meter compound inside a 2-meter-high wall will house administration and living quarters, a generator facility, and two main tracking antennas, 5 and 9 meters in diameter. A staff of 20 during missions will shrink to five between times.

Construction started earlier this year and the station is expected to be operational by year's end. Maps shown on Chinese television of the Xian space flight control center also indicate a ground site in or near Pakistan, but further details are unavailable. Chinese officials did tell Namibian officials that the tracking facility planned for that country was not their first foreign site, and another site may exist somewhere in the scattered island nation of Kiribati in the South Pacific.

Civil satellites

Manned flight overshadows the rest of China's space program, which is also evolving. More than 70 percent of the satellites built in the last two decades were for telecommunications and remote sensing, a much higher proportion than in the broader-based U.S. and Russian programs. This was in a country that by the end of 2000 had launched only 48 satellites, compared to the thousands launched in the USSR/Russia and the United States.

So far the Chinese have developed five types of satellites, and are working on several more. They have a small recoverable spacecraft project that brings film and experimental specimens back to Earth. Their domestic communication satellite program, called Dongfanghong (East-is-Red), involves payloads with design lifetimes of five to eight years, longer than Russian-built equivalents. There is also a Shijian (Practice) series of small experimental scientific and technology development satellites.

The fourth operational class of satellites consists of the Fengyun (Wind and Cloud) weather type. China is also developing a Fengyun-3 due for launch in about three years. Improvements here are primarily in orbital lifetime and viewing sharpness of the payload.

The first of the fifth family, the Zi Yuan (Earth Resources) monitoring satellites, was launched on 14 October 1999, in cooperation with Brazil, and a second all-Chinese vehicle was put into orbit on 1 September 2000. A third vehicle is slated for launch in the near future.

Just getting under way is a project called Bei Dou (North Star), a navigational satellite system aimed at eliminating dependence on the U.S. global positioning system network.

Such satellites have immense practical value to China. But they have other benefits, too, according to Xu Fuxiang, director of Beijing's Chinese Institute of Space Technology. Writing in the government newspaper Guangming Ribao last February, Xu argued that these satellites "have enhanced the strength of unity among our people, greatly raising China's political status among the nations of the world." Political spinoffs of this kind help sustain domestic political support.

Dual use for war and peace

"National defense" is an explicit category of space activity in all Chinese plans. Xu's article highlighted in its very first paragraph that "China has already formed a space weapons engineering research and manufacturing system."

Wang Liheng, general manager of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), in Beijing, mentioned the defense aspect of China's space program in a February briefing he gave to journalists on recent achievements. "We should do a good job to develop weaponry, intensify advanced research, and increase our technological reserve," he said. CASC is a state-owned organization that specializes in supplying launch vehicles and missiles.

U.S. government reports, both from Congress and from the Department of Defense, have warned of Chinese development of anti-satellite weapons. General technological advances in recent years render such weapons, from anti-satellite missiles to camera-blinding lasers, much easier to achieve at only modest levels of effort. The Chinese press has openly described a "parasite satellite" weapon that would surreptitiously approach a target satellite and attach itself undetected, awaiting a command to explode and destroy the target.

Foreign experts do not expect that China will ever divide its space efforts into distinct civilian and military categories. All so-called dual-use technologies (those with both civilian and military functions) will support China's military goals as much as needed. Plans for a small, permanently occupied space station, for example, probably include military functions [see photo]. "I am sure that the only way that a space station program could be sold to the government would be to have military as well as civil applications, and photo-reconnaissance is the most likely explanation," noted Phillip Clark, an independent space consultant in Great Britain who specializes in Chinese and Russian space activities.

Last December, Richard Fisher, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C., warned that "China has great ambitions" in using space technology to exert world power, including military power. He cited public expressions of interest by the Chinese army "in developing its own anti-missile systems [which] could lead to an inherent anti-satellite (ASAT) capability." The lesson of the Gulf War--that a U.S. monopoly on space-based military assets provides an overwhelming terrestrial military advantage--has clearly not been lost on Chinese military planners.

Ambitions for the longer term

Over the next 20 years, predicts China's white paper issued last November, space infrastructure will be deployed to achieve "industrialization and marketization of space technology and space applications" and "a more important place in the world in the field of space science with more achievements." It will accomplish this under the leadership of an all-powerful planning group, the China National Space Administration (CNSA), formed in 1993.

"The state guides the development of space activities through macro-control, makes overall plans for the development of space technology, space applications, and space science, promotes the R&D and system integration of important space technologies and the application of space science and technology in the fields of economy, science and technology, culture, and national defense," reads the report. It concludes that "the state's supervision over space activities is being continuously strengthened."

Xu Fuxiang's report last February also stressed central planning: "China's various types of artificial satellites, in their research and manufacture, are all under unified national leadership." This leadership is expected to "correctly select technological paths, strengthen advanced research, and constantly initiate technical advances. We must constantly select development paths where the technological leaps are the greatest." This must be done under strict funding constraints that require selecting "limited goals and focus[ing] on developing the...satellites urgently required by our country," and on determining which types of satellite are most crucial to national development.

Will it work?

Western observers remain skeptical that such a narrowly based space technology development program can be sustained in the long term. The Asia-Pacific Center's Johnson-Freese told Spectrum that "they are not building the science/technology infrastructure necessary for a broad program," and she considered this issue "critical."

"Asian programs generally are weakest on the systems engineering issues, those which require 'big picture' orientation," she explained. "The Japanese are at least aware of that weakness and try to compensate--the Chinese, less so." Concluded Johnson-Freese, "It is likely that [weakness will catch up with the Chinese] at some point."

How far China's catch-up strategy for space development succeeds will have global repercussions in the coming decade. First, in space itself, it will determine the balance of competition and cooperation that will characterize the ambitious international space projects of the following decade, including human flight beyond low Earth orbit. Second, it will demonstrate whether so concentrated and narrowly based a fast-forward strategy is applicable elsewhere, to any similar areas of science and engineering in which the current leaders, whether the United States, Europe, Japan, or others, have the impression their domination is secure. In these and other areas, China has made clear its determination that the status quo is going to be history.

Stephen Cass, Editor


To Probe Further

Singapore-based Chen Lan has put together a terrific site for watchers of the Chinese manned space program. It includes stills from Chinese TV reports, a host of photographs, details about the Long March fleet of rockets, and much more. See https://www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/Launchpad/1921/index.htm

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