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Shenzhou: The star of China’s human space program

The fourth essay in our space design series, STIRship Enterprise, focuses on the manned spacecraft Shenzhou by China and its significance in the country’s space race.

by Susmita MohantyPublished on : Dec 13, 2022

China has surpassed the United States and Russia as a space power. In 2021, with 55 launches in a single year, China beat the United States to become the leading launch nation in the world1.

On May 14, 2021, the Chinese lander-rover Tianwen-12 successfully touched down on Mars3, making China the third nation, after the Soviet Union and the United States,4 to make a soft landing on and establish communication from the Martian surface. On May 22, 2021, the Zhurong rover drove onto the Martian surface using the descent ramps on its landing platform.5 With the successful deployment of the rover, China became the second nation, after the United States, to accomplish this feat. China is the first nation to successfully carry out an orbiting, landing, and rovering mission on Mars, on its maiden attempt.6 Tianwen-1 is also the second mission, after the United States' Perseverance rover, to capture audio recordings on the Martian surface. On its first try, China's Zhurong rover hit a Mars milestone that took NASA decades to accomplish.

China’s Zhurong rover on Mars Video: Courtesy of VideoFromSpace via YouTube and Footage credits: China Central Television / CNSA

China is the only country to have landed successfully (not once, but thrice, consecutively)—on the Moon, in recent years. Chang'e-3 landed on the Moon in December 20137, becoming the first spacecraft to soft-land on the Moon since the Soviet Union's Lunokhod-2 landing in 19738. The United States' last Apollo mission touched down on the Moon in 19729. Chang'e-3 touchdown marked the first lunar landing in almost 40 years. Chang'e-3 also deployed a 140 kg six-wheeled rover named Yutu (Jade Rabbit, the pet of the Chinese moon goddess Chang’e) to explore the lunar surface.

  • Yutu pan cam image of the Chang'e 3 Lander on the Moon | Shenzhou | China | STIRworld
    Yutu pan cam image of the Chang'e 3 Lander on the Moon Image: Stuart Rankin on Flickr, Courtesy of Creative Commons
  • China's first mission to Mars, Tianwen-1 | Shenzhou | China | STIRworld
    China's first mission to Mars, Tianwen-1 Image: Steve Jurvetson on Flickr, Courtesy of Creative Commons
  • 360° Mars Panorama by the Tianwen-1 lander | Shenzhou | China | STIRworld
    360° Mars Panorama by the Tianwen-1 lander Image: Cygni_18 on Flickr, Courtesy of Creative Commons

Project 921: Chinese human space program

Project 921, officially known as the China Manned Space Program (CMS), is managed by the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA). It was approved on September 21, 1992, and has been in operation ever since. The CMS10 roadmap is divided into three phases:

  1. Crewed spacecraft launch and return.
  2. Space laboratory with capabilities of Extravehicular Activities (EVA), space rendezvous and spacecraft docking procedures.
  3. Long term space station in low earth orbit (LEO).

Shenzhou spacecraft ground test and assembly | Shenzhou | China | STIRworld
Shenzhou spacecraft ground test and assembly Image: Courtesy of China News Service, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The first Chinese crewed mission took place in 2003 when Taikonaut Yang Liwei flew 14 orbits around the Earth in Shenzhou-5 (SZ5)11. Zhai Zhigang became the first Chinese astronaut to embark on a spacewalk in 2008 during the Shenzhou-7 (SZ7) mission, with the Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA) lasting 22 minutes.

Liu Yang was the first Chinese woman to fly to space in 2012. She flew on the Shenzhou-9 (SZ9) with two crewmates to the Tiangong-1 space lab12. Wang Yaping made history as the first Chinese woman to walk in space in 2013 on a Shenzhou-13 (SZ13) mission.

Thirty years on, the CMS is cruising along at a consistent pace with impressive milestones to its credit. Fuelling these rides to LEO is the Chinese Shénzhōu13 (pronounced Shísì-hào, literal translation ‘Divine Boat’) spacecraft. The Shenzhou design resembles the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, but is larger. The Shenzhou debut launch took place in November 1999, just seven years after the CMS was approved and the first crewed launch happened four years later in October 2003.

Shenzhou flight history

Here is an overview of the Shenzhou flight history from its debut in November 1999 to the Shenzhou-14 (SZ14) flight in August 2022. It is important to highlight that between 2011 and 2020, the United States of America (USA) did not have its own human ferry and had to rely on the Russian Soyuz to fly its astronauts to the orbiting International Space Station (ISS). By 2011, when the American Space Shuttle fleet was retired, China had already completed three crewed missions to LEO, its first space walk, and first successful automatic docking mission.

Shenzhou flight history|Shenzhou | China | STIRworld
Shenzhou flight history Image: Courtesy of STIR

A safe and reliable ferry

China routinely flies the full crew complement of three People’s Liberation Army Astronaut Corps (PLAAC) taikonauts, since 2008. The Shenzhou spacecraft is the ferry flying taikonauts safely to LEO, since its first crewed flight in 2003. It docks with evolving versions of Chinese orbital outposts—the first two being Tiangong-1 (T1) and Tiangong-2 (T2). T1 and T2 comprised a laboratory module as an experimental test bed to demonstrate orbital rendezvous and docking. T1 was launched in 2011 and deorbited in 2018, while T2 was launched in 2016 and deorbited in 2019.

  • Shenzhou, a spacecraft developed and operated by China supports its crewed spaceflight program, China Manned Space Program | Shenzhou | China | STIRworld
    Shenzhou, a spacecraft developed and operated by China supports its crewed spaceflight program, China Manned Space Program Image: Kordite on Flickr, Courtesy of Creative Commons
  • Long March 2F and Shenzhou-12 being rolled out to launch site | Shenzhou | China | STIRworld
    Long March 2F and Shenzhou-12 being rolled out to launch site Image: China News Service, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The latest Chinese orbital outpost is Tiangong Space Station being built in a modular fashion as was the case with the Russian Mir and the International Space Station. Its first core module Tianhe (literal translation 'Harmony of the Heavens') and Shenzhou have docked thrice since 2021. Tianhe was launched in April 2021. Shenzhou has already flown 14 times and the last three missions have reinforced the maturity of the Chinese human spaceflight program, which began nearly three decades ago in 1992.

A new space race

In 2007, when I wrote to my mentor, the British science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke, living in Colombo, telling him I was planning on leaving San Francisco after calling the city home for nearly a decade and moving back to India—Clarke wrote back saying that’s a ‘strategic’ move. I asked Clarke why he thought so, he replied, “everything began in the East and is going back there.” He further added, “Chinese alchemists invented gunpowder. No gunpowder, no rockets." Clarke’s take on China was spot on. China has established itself as a global space power and is now a primary contender, with the USA, in the new Space Race. If Clarke were alive today, he would have perhaps said he saw it coming.

The space rivalry between the USA and China is not a secret anymore

In December 2021, a top Chinese scientist Ye Peijian—a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences—said China might be able to send astronauts to the Moon, for the first time, by 2030. This optimistic outlook by Ye Peijian came just weeks after American President Joe Biden’s top space official set out a similar timeline for the new American lunar exploration program—Artemis. One cannot therefore, rule out the possibility of duelling missions between two of the world’s best-financed space powers28. Space Race 2.0 has begun.

STIRship Enterprise: a special series on space architecture and design
In this flagship series, spaceship designer and entrepreneur Dr. Susmita Mohanty travels the cosmos with an expert’s lens to decode the future of life in space through space design. STIRship Enterprise is a collection of essays to introduce terrestrial architects, engineers, and designers to the world of Space Architecture + Design.



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