On April 1, a spacecraft capable of carrying three people into orbit returned safely to Earth.

That may not sound like news after 40 years of manned spaceflights, but this was a very special spacecraft: it was Chinese.

Shenzhou (Heavenly Vessel) 3 carried instrumented mannequins instead of humans, but its success makes it more likely that sometime before the end of next year the first Chinese “takonauts” (taiko is Chinese for space) will rocket into orbit, making China only the third country in the world to launch its own crews into space with its own rockets.

The Chinese manned space program first caught the world’s attention in November of 1999, when Shenzhou 1 circled the Earth 14 times. Shenzhou 2 followed in January, 2001, staying in orbit for six days and fired steering rockets several times. It carried more scientific equipment and some live animal subjects. Shenzhou 3, in addition to mannequins, carried an experimental microchip, an egg-hatching incubator, a vaccine experiment, and a number of plant seeds.

China’s homegrown spacecraft looks a lot like the Russian Soyuz–roughly bell-shaped–but it’s 13 percent larger and all of its vital systems and most of its hardware used are of purely Chinese design. It seats three crew members side-by-side in reclining seats, and includes hand controls and an optical sighting device for conducting space rendezvous. That’s considerably more advanced than the one-person, non-steerable “space capsules” the U.S. launched its manned space program with in the early 1960s.

And that’s just the return module. There are two additional modules: a propulsion module with four large main engines (Soyuz has only one main engine and one back-up) and an orbital module with its own solar panels and an independent flight-control system. The Shenzhou 3 orbital module is still in space; it could serve as a rendezvous target for Shenzhou 4 later this year.

The rockets used to launch the Shenzhou spacecraft so far are modified intercontinental ballistic missiles. Currently the most powerful Chinese booster can place 9200 kilograms into orbit, but within 10 years the Chinese hope to have boosters more powerful than the space shuttle or the Russian Proton rocket, capable of placing 25,000 kilograms into orbit–powerful enough to enable them to launch a small space station.

Launches to date have taken place from landlocked areas deep inside China, but the Chinese government is currently building a new launch site on Hainan Island. The coastal area ensures falling debris, in the case of disaster, lands in the ocean, and will allow the new, larger boosters to be delivered to the launch site by barge instead of train. China has also built tracking stations in southern Africa and elsewhere, and built four tracking ships that can be deployed around the world.

The first 12 taikonauts, fighter pilots chosen from more than 2,000 candidates, are already in training.

Western experts speculate that we’ll see an unmanned Shenzhou 4 in August or September time frame, followed by a final unmanned flight, Shenzhou 5, early next year–and a manned Shenzhou 6 by the third quarter of next year.

Qi Faren, the chief designer of the Shenzhou 3 spacecraft, calls it a “shuttle-bus” between the Earth and the universe, and says it will provide a link to a Chinese space station to launch sometime in the future. And in the past, Chinese authorities have indicated they might be interested in sending a crew to the Moon by 2010.

How seriously should we take these plans? Considering the cautious, step-by-step approach the Chinese are taking to building the necessary infrastructure for manned space flight, and the success of their launches to date, very seriously. The country sees a military need to be active in space, and also believe a space program is vital to its future in many other ways.

As Lian Sili, a space scientist, was quoted as saying in the official China Daily newspaper last November, “For mankind in the 21st century, space application will become as essential as electricity and oil in the 19th century.”

China seems certain to join the U.S. and Russia in the exclusive manned-spaceflight club sooner, rather than later–and personally, I couldn’t be happier. As far as I’m concerned, the more people we can get into space, the better.

I just wish I could be one of them.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2002/04/taikonauts/

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