China’s first manned space flight was launched on 15 October 2003 from a site in the Gobi Desert. The taikonaut – the Chinese name for astronaut – made 15 orbits around the Earth in the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft. He landed on 16 October at a site in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. With this flight, China became the third country to send a man into space, with the other two being Russia and the United States.
The spacecraft was modelled on the design of Russia’s Soyuz-TM. It consists of a cylindrically shaped orbital module, an aerodynamically designed descent module and a service module at the rear of the service module. Each Shenzhou flight requires a new vehicle. The flight vehicle is launched from the CZ-2F launch vehicle at the Jiuquan Launch Centre.
The Shenzhou spacecraft is designed to fly in a low-Earth orbit – approximately 343 km above the Earth – at an inclination of 43 degrees. Each vehicle is able to carry up to three people.
The mission plan was that Yang should remain in the re-entry capsule for the entire flight. He was not supposed to enter the orbital module. When the re-entry and orbital module separated at the beginning of the descent to Earth, the orbital module remained in space orbit for a six-month military-imaging mission. In contrast with the Soyuz spacecraft, the Shenzhou vehicles are powered by solar arrays and are able to remain in space after the re-entry module returns to Earth.
China’s space programme began in earnest in 1992. The country’s first unmanned spacecraft was launched in November 1999 and made 14 orbits of the Earth over a period of 21 hours and 11 minutes. Further unmanned test flights of Shenzhou 2, 3 and 4 were launched in January 2001, March 2002 and December 2002 respectively. Each of these made 107 orbits of the Erath over a period of six days.
China has launched two further manned missions since the first flight. Shenzhou 6, launched in October 2005, had a two-man crew and orbited the Earth for four days. Shenzhou 7, launched in September 2008, had a three-man crew and orbited for 2 days and 20 hours.
A rudimentary space station, the Tiangiong-1 space lab, was launched in September 2011. This was followed by a further unmanned mission, Shenzhou 8, that docked successfully with Tiangong-1. The Shenzhou 9 mission, scheduled for mid-2012, is planned as China’s first manned spacecraft that will dock with the orbiting space station.
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