Shenzhou VI to Return China to Orbit

by Chris Bergin

China’s dream of a permanent manned presence on the space frontier will be one step closer to reality, if all goes according to the plans of the morning of Thursday, October 13, 2005.

On that day, the Shenzhou VI spacecraft will blast off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Base and place two Chinese taikonauts into orbit.

Shenzhou VI will carry China’s second and third citizens into space, about one year after Colonel Yang Liwei blasted off aboard Shenzhou V, becoming his nation’s first taikonaut. The Shenzhou VI mission is expected to last 119 hours, or just about five days, returning to Earth the morning of October 18.


A “taikonaut” is a Chinese astronaut. The term “Shenzhou” means “divine vessel”.


The Jiuquan Satellite Launch Base, located in the southwest region of the Gobi Desert in the Kansu Province, began operation in 1958. Today, it is one of the facilities playing a key role in China’s plans to establish an orbiting space station and lunar base.


According to a researcher in China’s manned space program, over 100 technological modifications have been made in Shenzhou VI, allowing for a longer flight and a mission conducive to scientific research. During the mission, the two taikonauts will be able to remove their 10 kg space suits, open the door between the return cabin and the orbit cabin, and enter for the first time the orbit cabin to conduct scientific experiments. The orbit cabin Shenzhou VI is fitted with sleeping bags, and the crew will also be able to warm up their food, do some sanitary work, and take a rest in turn.


The exact launch and return times have yet to be finalized, depending largely on the weather conditions during that time. A Hong Kong media agency has learned that the meteorological group associated with the Shenzhou VI mission at Jiuquan is responsible for providing the most accurate weather forecast.


An expert remarked that Shenzhou I and II were respectively launched in the small hours of the morning and at midnight. Shenzhou III was launched in the very late evening, while Shenzhou IV was launched in the early morning.


The Shenzhou VI, like its predecessor Shenzhou V, will launch in the daytime. The chief reason is to ensure greater safety as these missions are manned.

Shenzhou V was launched at 9.00 in the morning. A near-noon launch time was chosen for the Shenzhou VI mainly because the rise in temperature at that time will better assist the ground crew in their final preparations, and because it will be easier to ensure the taikonauts’ safety in the event of an emergency.


So far, the last stage of assembly and inspection of the Shenzhou VI spaceship and the Changzheng [Long March] 2F rocket that will boost it into orbit are being carried out at Jiuquan.


It has also been learned that the mass of the Shenzhou VI spaceship will increase by 200 kg to accommodate two crew. An aerospace expert in China’s manned space program said that the Shenzhou VI mission design optimizes the configuration of the whole spaceship, provides for the on-orbit working modes of the technological modifications, ensures the vehicle’s energy balance and further increases the reliability and safety of the spaceship.

The two taikonauts that will fly the Shenzhou VI mission will be chosen from a pool of six, consisting of three groups of two crew each. The selection will be made during the countdown period, as was done with the Shenzhou V mission.


Zhai Zhigang, a comrade of Colonel Liwei’s, and Nie Haisheng compose one of the three final groups. According to an analysis, the “Zhai-Nie” group is the strongest in the running. Although anything can happen at the last minute, it is highly probable that these two men will embark on the Shenzhou VI, advancing China’s long march into space. Preparations for China’s historic second manned space mission are intended to leave little to chance.

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