Development began in 1992, under the name of Project 921-1. The Chinese National Manned Space Program was given the designation Project 921 with Project 921-1 as its first significant goal. The plan called for a manned launch in October 1999, prior to the new millennium.
The first four unmanned test flights happened in 1999, 2001 and 2002. These were followed with another manned launch on 12 October 2005. It is launched on the Long March 2F from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. The command center of the mission is the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center.
The name is variously translated as "Divine Craft", "Divine Vessel" or similar, but is also a reference to a literary name for China with the same pronunciation (神州; literally "Divine Land").
China's first efforts at human spaceflight started in 1968 with a projected launch date of 1973. Although China did launch an unmanned satellite in 1970 and has maintained an active unmanned program since, the manned spaceflight program was cancelled due to lack of funds and political interest.
The current Chinese human spaceflight program was authorized on 1 April 1992 as Project 921-1, with work beginning on 1 January 1993. The initial plan has three phases:
The chief designers include Qi Faren and Wang Yongzhi. The first unmanned flight of the spacecraft was launched on 19 November 1999 after which Project 921-1 was renamed Shenzhou, a name reportedly chosen by Jiang Zemin. A series of three additional unmanned flights ensued. The Shenzhou reentry capsules used to date are 13 percent larger than Soyuz reentry capsules, and it is expected that later craft will be designed to carry a crew of four instead of Soyuz's three, although physical limitations on Astronaut size, as experienced with earlier incarnations of Soyuz, will likely apply.
Like similar space programs in other nations, Shenzhou has raised some questions about whether China should spend money on launching people into space, arguing that these resources would be better directed elsewhere. Indeed, two earlier human spaceflight programs, one in the mid-1970s and the other in the 1980s were cancelled because of expense. In response, a number of justifications have been offered in the Chinese media. One is that the long term destiny of humanity lies in the exploration of space, and that China should not be left behind. Another is that such a program will catalyze the development of science and technology in China. Finally, it has been argued that the prestige resulting from this capability will increase China's stature in the world, in a similar manner to the 2008 Olympics.
On 17 October 2005, following the success of Shenzhou 6, Chinese media officially stated that the cost of this flight was around $110 million USD, and the gross cost of Project 921/1 in the past 11 years was $2.3 billion USD. These values are lower than the cost of similar space programs in other nations, but it should be noted that given the closed nature of the Chinese regime (and semi-military nature of the program) they cannot be verified. The true cost is likely comparable to that of other similar programs.
The Chinese media has heavily promoted the experiments undertaken by Shenzhou, particularly exposing seeds, including some from Taiwan, to zero gravity and radiation. Most scientists, however, discount the usefulness of this type of experiment - instead relying upon crop modification at the genetic level for future productivity benefits.
Media outlets have suggested that there are elements of military motivation (presumably technological in nature) behind China's ability to put astronauts into space, specifically in the areas of reconnaissance and anti-satellite weaponry (as demonstrated by an ASAT test in 2007). On balance it is likely that a significant military dimension does exist in the Chinese space program, in particular due to the secretive nature of space research funding within China. The lack of transparency and pattern of little accountability is comparable to that which surrounded the space program of the USSR. However, the Chinese media has downplayed possible military motivations although Shenzhou's orbital module, staying in orbit for more than 6 months before falling back to earth and disintegrating, is equipped with a high-resolution observation camera, which could be used for military intelligence purposes.
However the experience during the 1960s of both the United States with the Manned Orbiting Laboratory and the Soviet Union with the Almaz space station suggests that the military usefulness of human spaceflight is quite limited and that practically all military uses of space are much more effectively performed by unmanned satellites. Thus while the Shenzhou orbital module could be used for military reconnaissance there appears to be no military reason for incorporating such as system in a manned mission, as China could use purely unmanned satellites for these purposes. Yet, the nature of space exploration, with different nations trying successively to achieve the same goals (e.g., the original U.S. - Soviet "space race", current efforts to duplicate GPS and GLONASS with Galileo), implies that China may well be walking down this route as others have before them.
Like Soyuz, Shenzhou consists of three modules: a forward orbital module (轨道舱), a reentry capsule (返回舱) in the middle, and an aft service module (推进舱). This division is based on the principle of minimizing the amount of material to be returned to Earth. Anything placed in the orbital or service modules does not require heat shielding, and this greatly increases the space available in the spacecraft without increasing weight as much as it would if those modules were also able to withstand reentry. Thus both Soyuz and Shenzhou have more living area with less weight than the Apollo CSM.
This is similar to the process used by the Soviet Union in their early Soyuz program which was intended to test procedures for future Lunar flights.
November 1996 trainer selection
There were two astronaut trainers selected for Project 921. They trained at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonauts Training Center in Russia.
January 1998 Shenzhou astronaut candidate selection
In July 2007, plans were announced to select up to 14 men for another group of Shenzhou astronaut candidates.
Published in July 2009.
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