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Project 921 Shenzhou
China and Piloted Space Programs

Shenzhou Test Flights

China's first experimental spacecraft "Shenzhou" (meaning in Chinese "Magic Vessel", "God Ship", "God Boat" "Vessel of the Gods", "Divine Craft", "Divine Mechanism" but also a pun off a literary name for China), completed a 21-hour plus space voyage on 21 November 1999. After operating around the earth 14 times and completing the related scientific experiments, its recovery capsule touched down in the central Inner-Mongolia Autonomous Region in north China on November 21, 1999. Launched atop a new model Long March 2F booster, the unmanned spacecraft consists of propulsion, return and orbit modules. It carried a mannequin for test purposes. It is reported to be an 8.4 tonne capsule, capable of accommodating a crew of four. The capsule is not a reusable vehicle. After one or two unmanned flights, the same model was expected to carry one or more "taikonauts" in 2000. (A reported variant of Taikonaut is Taikongaut, "Tai Kong" meaning Cosmos.) Initial orbital parameters of the capsule were period 89.6 min, apogee 315 km, perigee 195 km, and inclination 42.6 deg.

China's Shenzhou II spacecraft carried a, a rabbit and snails into space in early January 2001, and returned to earth from the seven-day mission after making 108 orbits, as Beijing prepared for a manned flight in the next five years. Shenzhou II was composed of an orbital module, returning module and booster rockets, almost identical to how a manned spacecraft would be constructed. The descent module landed in Inner Mongolia on 16 January at 11:22 UT after separating from 2001-001A which continued to orbit, doing some zero-gravity experiments. The descent module is a prototype of an eventual manned spacecraft to carry Taikongyuans (Taikonauts). A major concern during this and the next few launches would be to assess the integrity of the heat shield during re-entry. The ShenZhou II spacecraft is believed to have suffered a hard landing upon its return since it has never been displayed in imagery.

China's third unmanned experimental spacecraft, Shenzhou-3 was successfully launched at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in north-west China's Gansu Province on 25 March 2002. It consisted of three modules: a propulsion section, a conical re-entry capsule, and an orbiter. The capsule was equipped with all that would be needed for a manned flight. The emergency escape system, for automatic initiation and by ground command was repeatedly tested; more tests will be made before a manned launch. (The earlier models, Shenzhou 1 and Shenzhou 2 did not provide escape capabilities.) During the test launch, space scientists for the first time tested the launch escape system, which could save the lives of astronauts. Shenzhou's flight was tracked and controlled from the Beijing Aerospace Direction and Control Center and a fleet of four instrumentation ships, which were deployed in Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans.

Shenzhou-4 was launched on 29 December 2002. This fourth and last unmanned test mission of Shenzhou was the final test before sending a human into space. The spacecraft orbited the earth for a week before landing during early January in the desert of China's northern Inner Mongolia region. Officials at the time said the mission, which carried food, sleeping bags, and all equipment necessary for sustaining life, laid a solid foundation for a manned space flight. Since the January mission, scientists in Beijing studyied data collected by Shenzhou Four.

China launched its first manned space mission on 15 October 2003 at 9:00 AM local time with one "Yuhangyuan" (Astronaut, in Chinese), in Shenzhou 5. The astronaut, a 38-year-old air force lieutenant colonel named Yang Liwei, orbited the Earth 14 times in just over 20 hours. The 8.5 tonne satellite consists of three modules, the middle one being the manned one carrying one astronaut. After 21 hours of orbiting, the manned module and the service module were separated from the orbiter module, and commenced the return to Earth. During the descent, the manned module was separated from the service module and soft-landed on Earth. This feat has previously been accomplished by only two other nations: the United States and Russia. Chinese leaders had already attained seen a rise in national pride at a time when the country is seeing both unprecedented economic growth and mounting concerns over an expanding gap between rich and poor. A failure would raise questions about the necessity of a space program in a country where 140 million people live in abject poverty. Despite the income gap and high unemployment in some parts of the country, many Chinese - including very poor people - say they are proud that their nation is joining the United States and the former Soviet Union as the third nation to put a human in space.

As of 2005 China was estimated to have spent approximately $2.2 billion on its Shenzhou program.

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