Chinese Manned Spaceflight
September 25, 2003 11:35 AM   Subscribe

Chinese Manned Spaceflight as early as October. After years of preparation, China appears poised to join America and Russia in manned space efforts. Tons of details at spacedaily.com. Rumor has it that the goal of the Chinese is a permanent lunar base and a visit to Mars. Will it take international competition to get the US moving in manned space flight outside of Earth orbit? The Space Exploration Act of 2003 sits as a bill in Congress, awaiting support. Will children dream of being a Yuhangyuan (Chinese term for space explorer) instead of an astronaut or cosmonaut?
posted by Argyle (49 comments total)
 
rook! I can see my house from here!
posted by jonson at 11:59 AM on September 25, 2003


The areticle says it's "safer than a soyuz" so that gives it, what, a 50% chance that the pilot will live through this first flight?

Can the Chinese really catch up to us anyway? This first launch puts them squarely at say 1958 on the space timeline, give or take a few years for espionage gathered info and what the Russians sold them, but they still (as of today anyway) have yet to put a human in orbit. Seeing as we already have been to the moon sucessfully several times, we have reusable shuttle vehicles and more on the drawing board, successful probe missions to several planets and even a meteorite under our belt, is the race even narrowed yet? Reguardless, I hope it does light a fire under Congress/NASA's collective lazy, complacent butts! Bout time we got some more good science going, I mean, hell, when was the last time NASA gave us anything as useful as Tang or Velcro? I want my car that runs on water damnit!
posted by Pollomacho at 11:59 AM on September 25, 2003


You know after they get to the moon they're just going to want to go back an hour later.
posted by Cyrano at 12:05 PM on September 25, 2003


the advantage that China has over the U.S. is that no matter how dangerous their space program is, or how many people die, they won't blink an eye and will keep pushing towards their goal
posted by gyc at 12:20 PM on September 25, 2003


Pollomacho: Most observers agree that the Shenzhou is significantly more advanced than the Soyuz, with its orbital module that can run independently of the crew module. Also, given that Soyuz is in fact one of the most reliable launch vehicles in the world, with over a 98% reliability - and that the crew survival probability on Shenzhou is supposed to be as high as 99.7%, it's not something to joke about. Especially when NASA has plenty of its own problems...

This Scientific American article describes China's position in space operations. Basically, no-one expects them to overtake America in the next couple of decades, but they may well become the number two space power, beating ESA and the Russians. If they keep up a focused and steady space program with long-term goals, they'll achieve a great deal.
posted by adrianhon at 12:23 PM on September 25, 2003


Copying Soyuz is a smart thing. Soyuz was designed to correctly orient itself during reenty without piloting, simply by exploiting drag forces. Brilliant engineering if you ask me.
posted by Cerebus at 12:26 PM on September 25, 2003


Don't be so cocky.

Seeing as we already have been to the moon sucessfully several times,

... and couldn't get back now before the decade is out even if we tried.

we have reusable shuttle vehicles and more on the drawing board

Unbuilt vehicles are useless. The Shuttle... well, let's just say it wasn't the best of breed even in the 70's.
posted by Cerebus at 12:29 PM on September 25, 2003


Cerebus hit it on the head.

Regardless if China's space program will be ahead or behind ours, they are actually DOING it, as opposed to the US, which seems to be happy to rest on the accomplishments of the 60's and 70's. Our dreams of space seem to have been cast aside.
posted by jazon at 12:53 PM on September 25, 2003


gyc, can you extrapolate on that a bit? Are you saying that China cares less about its citizens than the US does?

And also, what do you mean by "Poised to Join America?" 'Cause I don't think there's gonna be any 'Mericans in space by then, just missile guiding satellites.
posted by zekinskia at 1:14 PM on September 25, 2003


Humans in space, in orbit or on the moon don't matter much. Eventually we will colonize Mars and all that good stuff, but for the next 50-100 years, we won't. The meaningful space-related tasks that remain (planetary exploration, communication satellites, manufacturing in free fall, mining asteroids, etc) are all done better by machines.

A lot of countries imagine they need a national airline and a national car manufacturer to be "real" industrialized countries. China believes it needs to send a human into space to be a "real" global player.
posted by Triplanetary at 1:34 PM on September 25, 2003


You gotta love their logo.
posted by condour75 at 1:43 PM on September 25, 2003


America and the Soviets got into a space race that coincided with their missile race; I read somewhere that the Sovs wanted to detonate a nuclear bomb on the moon to demonstrate their prowess (they abandoned the idea when they realized nobody would notice it in a vacuum). It can't be coincidence that the Chinese are pushing to develop a credible strategic nuclear arsenal at the same time. I would be surprised if their lofty spirit of cosmic exploration outlives their sense of missile envy, any more than our did.
posted by coelecanth at 1:44 PM on September 25, 2003


I hope the best for the Chinese, and also hope this'll become a burr in the side of American politicians and encourage a new Space Race, so Americans get in gear again and move forward. Failing that, at least the concept of space exploration won't completely die in my generation. It's just that, like stem-cell research and many other areas of science which America should be pioneering, my nation won't be at the forefront, leading the way. It's just as well. America was the top dog for long enough. It's time to let the other countries best us and maybe someday soon we'll all kiss the butts of our new overlords, but for now we can just be lazy, stingy, and rest on our rapidly decaying laurels. In the mean time, how's that $87 million dollars going towards regressing humanity coming along? How many more people on this planet hate us today? Ah, it just warms the cockles of my heart.
posted by ZachsMind at 1:48 PM on September 25, 2003


Heh heh. You said "cockles".
posted by coelecanth at 1:53 PM on September 25, 2003


Will it take international competition to get the US moving in manned space flight outside of Earth orbit?

Manned space flight outside of the Earth's orbit serves no real purpose other than 'rah-rah nationalism'... and the only time we ever had a true focus on space was during the cold war and our competition with the Soviets.

So yes... international competition is just about the only way a space program will continue to push itself forward... other than that space isn't of much use.
posted by wfrgms at 2:06 PM on September 25, 2003


Manned space flight outside of the Earth's orbit serves no real purpose other than 'rah-rah nationalism' [...] other than that space isn't of much use.

Yeah, and getting out of the house is just a way to meet girls. Other than that, nothing outside of your house is of much use.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:15 PM on September 25, 2003


Velcro wasn't invented by NASA, or even in American. But NASA did bring us the space blanket, the space pen and of course the space ice cream.
posted by golo at 2:19 PM on September 25, 2003


Wfrgms: "Manned space flight outside of the Earth's orbit serves no real purpose..."

I say we have six point three billion reasons on this planet to find a purpose for space flight outside Earth's orbit by the end of this century, at which point the number will be over seven billion.

This speck of debris we're sittin' on? It ain't gettin' any bigger.
posted by ZachsMind at 2:21 PM on September 25, 2003


I'm not convinced it will ever be practical to physically relocate much population offworld. But as a solution to the natural resource problem (just for a start), now you're talking. The solar system has everything we could possibly need in vast abundance; and it's pretty damn hard to pollute.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:30 PM on September 25, 2003


Okay everyone, you know the drill - everything in Mandarin is in italics.

Mom: Ernie! Quit wasting time and get inside!

Ernie: But we're standing at the sight of the first lunar landing. See?
Here's Neil Armstrong's footprints, and the flag he planted-


Mom: Ernie, look around. It's just a dead man's footprints and some crummy plastic flag in the dust. Now get in here before you freeze.
posted by Smart Dalek at 2:33 PM on September 25, 2003


George.. "I'm not convinced it will ever be practical..."

Oh I'm not suggesting the mass exodus hailed in many speculative fiction storylines. We just need somewhere to go. Three to five hundred years ago the final frontier was the unexplored Americas. We've pretty much run out of places to explore on this planet. Places to spread our wings so to speak, guarantee future generations, spread our seed as it were. Nowhere to go really but up. The vast majority of human beings today will remain here. Probably everybody living today will never permanently reside anywhere else. Our grandchildren however, some of them will have to venture off world and we won't be able to get them started tomorrow if we keep our thumbs up our butts today. China has a much greater population problem than we do, which may be one of many factors leading to their decision to continue where we and the Russians have fumbled the ball.

We could terraform Mars, or come up with technology that'll make living in a space station at least as safe as living on the San Andreas fault. It's gonna be tough, and it probably won't happen in our lifetime, but it's gonna have to happen by our grandchildrens' lifetimes.

I mean, you think traffic's bad now?
posted by ZachsMind at 2:59 PM on September 25, 2003


the space blanket, the space pen and of course the space ice cream

don't forget the space prostitute!

actually, one thing I thought was absolutely brilliant about the series Firefly was the proliferation of Chinese technology, and how just about everyone could speak Mandarin.
posted by dorian at 3:03 PM on September 25, 2003


We've pretty much run out of places to explore on this planet.

the pacific ocean and it's 7,000 foot deep waters just let out a nice chuckle.......there's plenty to do here. make hast.
posted by oliver_crunk at 3:19 PM on September 25, 2003


All explorations into space are cool. I wish them the best of luck, the safest of journeys, and no lost yuhangyuan.
posted by swerve at 3:20 PM on September 25, 2003


and the grammar gorillas just laughed at me too.
posted by oliver_crunk at 3:22 PM on September 25, 2003


Somewhat related, there was a really interesting show on the History Channel called "History Undercover: Secrets of Soviet Space Disasters".

There were two Soyuz accidents:
Soyuz 1 the chute failed to open on re-entry.
Soyuz 11 three cosmonauts died due to depressurization in the capsule. Stuffing three cosmonauts into a capsule they couldn't wear suits.

There was also the Nedelin disaster:
http://www.russianspaceweb.com/r16_disaster.html
"When the commission members arrived to the launch pad, Konstantin Gerchik ordered to bring a chair for Nedelin, and a coach for other officials. Nedelin sat within 15-20 meters from the rocket!"
92 people died.
posted by Akuinnen at 4:02 PM on September 25, 2003


But as a solution to the natural resource problem (just for a start), now you're talking.

We don't need manned space flight for this. If the goal is to send out vehicles to gather resources from other places in the solar system, then people and the life support systems they need would add huge overhead without adding much benefit.

We could terraform Mars, or come up with technology that'll make living in a space station at least as safe as living on the San Andreas fault.

Sadly, terraforming Mars or coming up with technology to make a space station livable in the long term is not something we can just 'do' because we say we want to do it. Certainly research might be done on the subject, but the question is one of allocation of resources -- how much do you pay for that research when there are other scientific problems that might be solved if you put the money towards them? There are all kinds of science projects we could be spending tax dollars on to improve the lot of humanity.

The fact of the matter is, even if the Earth:
  • were devastated by a total nuclear war and fell under the blanket of nuclear winter
  • fell victim to the full effects of global warming
  • had it's ozone layer decimated
it would still be a better place to live than any other place in the solar system. Terraforming even a severly-damaged Earth biosphere would be easier than terraforming, say, Venus or Mars.

It's gonna be tough, and it probably won't happen in our lifetime, but it's gonna have to happen by our grandchildrens' lifetimes.

Not necessarily. For one thing, the question of how many people the earth biosphere will support has not been definitively answered. We might be better off funding research into how to reduce humanity's ecological footprint on the earth rather than putting it towards manned spaceflight.

I don't want to be a killjoy on this matter. I believe that research into spaceflight should continue. However, I am not convinced that the US should be spending more money on the matter, or making it's primary focus the "manned" part of the program (we need to figure out a better, cheaper way to launch mass out of our gravity well, for one).
posted by moonbiter at 4:32 PM on September 25, 2003


Smart Dalek, shouldn't that have been Fry and Leela?
posted by X-00 at 4:33 PM on September 25, 2003


how much do you pay for that research when there are other scientific problems that might be solved if you put the money towards them? There are all kinds of science projects we could be spending tax dollars on to improve the lot of humanity.

It always amazes me that people's objections seem to come down to the dollar amount involved. Compare it to the missile defense boondoggle, or spectacularly expensive military adventures. Cut those down a bit, then come talk to me again about what we're spending our money on. How about if we spend 10% on racial survival of what we now spend on wars that don't serve any vital national purpose and weapons that will never accomplish anything. Would that be a small enough number?
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:34 PM on September 25, 2003


One gamma-ray burst within a few thousand light years and it's all over.

Or maybe one supernova somewhat closer would also do the trick.

That's without even thinking about Near Earth Object impacts.

Space is the hostile environment to end all hostile environments.

"The Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in."
--Robert A. Heinlein

It's not about evacuating the earth; it's about ensuring survival of the species.
posted by Cerebus at 5:35 PM on September 25, 2003


Oh, and you can invest in slicing the pie ever smaller for a larger number of people, but sooner or later you run out of pie. But there's more pie out there somewhere. As GWB says, "make the pie higher!"
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:37 PM on September 25, 2003


Compare it to the missile defense boondoggle, or spectacularly expensive military adventures.

Heh. Don't get me started on the idiocy of missile defense and other stupid warfighting adventures which shall remain nameless. We are in complete agreement on this.

How about if we spend 10% on racial survival of what we now spend on wars that don't serve any vital national purpose and weapons that will never accomplish anything. Would that be a small enough number?

I'm simply pointing out that when it comes down to it, we only have x amount of resources to spend, so we have to think carefully about where we spend it. This is true even if we stopped all spending on war technology completely. There are other fields of science that would more likely ensure racial survival in the short term than manned space flight, such as developing sustainable resources and lessening our environmental impact.

Once we develop something cheaper, faster, more efficient and more reliable than chemical rockets, I'm all for manned spaceflight. But until then, it makes more sense to use lightweight robotic systems to do all of our exploration and space development.

... you can invest in slicing the pie ever smaller for a larger number of people, but sooner or later you run out of pie. But there's more pie out there somewhere.

Although this is likely true in the universe as a whole, this is definitely not true of our solar system. Focusing on the manned portion of space flight will not help this.
posted by moonbiter at 6:05 PM on September 25, 2003


Although this is likely true in the universe as a whole, this is definitely not true of our solar system.

Well, there could be geothermal vents in the oceans of Europa that result in balmy aquatic regions. All we have to do is GM ourselves to breathe water and not mind whatever chemical compounds might be dissolved in it, and we have ourselves a second home. There, that was easy. Where shall we go next?

(Tongue slightly in cheek, obviously.)
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:12 PM on September 25, 2003


"Yuhangyuan"? I guess that's short for "yuzhou hangxing yuan" and more romantic sounding, but "taikongren" seems the more familiar term.
posted by Poagao at 6:53 PM on September 25, 2003


Ultimately, moving a significant number of the population is unlikely. If you're born here you'll die here, but planning a colony or three to keep humanity going offworld is a laudable goal in itself.

If an Earth-like planet was found and we could build a ship that could do a fraction of the speed of light there would be no shortage of volunteers to be the pioneers of Earth II. Someone would come up with the resources, it may not even be the government, it could be private enterprise 200 years from now. Even if that means ships that take generations to arrive. Exploration is so much part of homo sapiens its hard to imagine not attempting to colonize offworld planets or moons.

In fact, I'm zipping up my silver jumpsuit as I type this!
posted by skallas at 8:24 PM on September 25, 2003


ZachsMind,

I say we have six point three billion reasons on this planet to find a purpose for space flight

The challenges of population don't require mankind to move to the stars. You've been reading to much sci-fi.
posted by wfrgms at 10:58 PM on September 25, 2003


In other words... what moonbiter said.
posted by wfrgms at 10:59 PM on September 25, 2003


The challenges of population don't require mankind to move to the stars.

And he didn't say they did. The tendency for population to increase to occupy the entire available niche is generally only limited by available resources (and competition, but we don't have any per se). Several posters have argued that we can optimize our use of resources to postpone the day when we start actually running out of things. I think there is only a little truth to that, and at least as much to the contrary. Supplies of clean and water, for example, are a vanishingly scarce luxury in about half the world and it's worsenting every day -- far faster than anyone is actually trying to do something about it.

Space development (robotic and/or remotely-controlled) will help solve some of the resource problem, but in time we can and should seek out more places to live. Not because we as a race will abandon this world, but because we're simply outgrowing it. One day we will begin a new age of exploration; not just because of space and resource exhaustion but because it's an innate imperative -- a consequence of both our baser and higher natures. It's a corollary of both human nature and human civilization But wfrgms -- nobody's saying you have to go.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:44 PM on September 25, 2003


Er, "clean and water" should read "clean and safe water".
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:46 PM on September 25, 2003


Although this is likely true in the universe as a whole, this is definitely not true of our solar system. Focusing on the manned portion of space flight will not help this.

I disagree. Everything you need is out there-- metals, organics, water, and energy-- for the taking; you just have to get there.

The problem with unmanned missions is that they are inherently limited. There's only so much an expert system can decide, only so much a new software upload can fix, and only so much a mobile robot can reach. While it is undeniably much more expensive to send a manned mission, they have far, far fewer limitations.
posted by Cerebus at 6:32 AM on September 26, 2003


Some more info and resources on China's space ambitions and capabilities:
"China has struck a deal to invest in Galileo, the European Union's space satellite navigation network"
China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology [annoying midi file]

But what really is puzzling me is this:
condour75 - That logo you linked to?It's timing out. More importantly it's from a chinese government domain. However the home page of said government domain, leads to some web designer's (Jamie L. Boucher) personal website! Do you (or anybody else) have any idea how she managed to do this. I mean if the chinese government is selling domain names I want one!
posted by talos at 8:34 AM on September 26, 2003


Also, given that Soyuz is in fact one of the most reliable launch vehicles in the world...

Yes, lately, they've got it down pretty well, but seeing as it took the Russians three shots to get a man up and back alive (and that's just the ones they admit to) I'd hope the Chinese do a bit better on their first run.

The Shuttle... well, let's just say it wasn't the best of breed even in the 70's.

Breed? Oh, not the best of the breed? And how many other shuttles have been taking people up and back for the last 30 years? I'd say when you are the one, that pretty much makes you the best.

and couldn't get back now before the decade is out even if we tried.

If tested, I'm sure this is not true. We did it before with computers that had less brains than an Atari 2600, 1950's propulsion systems, 1950's metal alloy technology and zero experience. Now we've got the experience, better systems, better materials, space station experience and reusable launch vehicles to leave supplies, etc up there for moon missions to recover in orbit cutting down on launch payloads/risks/drags. I think if tested like we were in the 60's, we could pull it off in 5.

Velcro wasn't invented by NASA, or even in American.

No they didn't invent Tang either, but its just an expression anyway. Incidentally Velcro's corp. hq is in New Hampshire.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:48 AM on September 26, 2003


Breed? Oh, not the best of the breed? And how many other shuttles have been taking people up and back for the last 30 years? I'd say when you are the one, that pretty much makes you the best.

It's cheaper to put payloads-- including men-- on disposable rockets. It's safer to bring payloads down ballistically, without all those protruding control surfaces.

This was all known inside the industry while it was being built, and it hasn't changed.

The Shuttle is a political machine designed to foster the impression of frugality, without actually being frugal. Even recovering the SRBs costs more than it's worth to simply replace them.
posted by Cerebus at 2:37 PM on September 26, 2003


As for returning to the moon--

Would that it were that simple.

We could go the Apollo route, but we'd have to develop a whole new heavy lifter, since there are no more Saturn V rockets in the inventory, and recreating it would be too difficult (as the components would have to be reverse engineered; not because the plans were lost as is commonly believed-- they weren't-- but because the components aren't made any more.) This would be both time consuming and expensive to develop and test.

Or, we could try the orbital tug route-- loft and assemble a transfer vehicle in orbit, and take it to the moon. This is rife with its own problems. Primarily, the assembly and launch of a ship in orbit is untried technology-- ISS not withstanding. Additionally, the shuttle doesn't go high enough; it can't reach any of the better starting orbits for lunar transfer, so either we'd need a whole new launch system for building the tug-- in which case we might as well go the Apollo route-- or we have to figure out how to get in and out of LEO efficiently enough to make it worthwhile. This obviously uses a lot of not-yet-existing technology, which will be both time consuming and expensive to develop and test.

Either way, it's not going to happen before 2015 at the earliest. Assuming we start tomorrow.
posted by Cerebus at 3:55 PM on September 26, 2003


"Yuhangyuan"? I guess that's short for "yuzhou hangxing yuan" and more romantic sounding, but "taikongren" seems the more familiar term.

Mainland China shortens terms by using the first character of each word.

Besides, "universe navigator" definitely sounds more romantic than "spaceman".
posted by linux at 4:39 PM on September 26, 2003


not because the plans were lost as is commonly believed-- they weren't-- but because the components aren't made any more

I ain't sayin' you're wrong, but I've heard NASA people say on the teevee that Congress made them destroy the plans for the SaturnV before they'd fund the shuttle. Which isn't to say that he was right, or not lying.

Just build an Orion and loft one of the Biosphere projects.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:04 PM on September 26, 2003


NASA denies that Saturn V blueprints were destroyed, after an author's claims to the contrary were made public. The claims vary: That Congress (or the legendary foe of NASA, the penny-pinching Wisconsin Democrat William Proxmire) insisted they be destroyed as a condition of approving the Shuttle; that NASA destroyed them voluntarily to hasten Shuttle approval; that Nixon administration officials worried about foreign governments obtaining the launch technology; and sometimes debunked by saying that the molds for key parts were indeed destroyed, after certain contract dates were passed. Sometimes surprising places vector the legend, such as astronaut Gordon Cooper, or unchary guides at the Air and Space Museum. But the real problem is that having the plans isn't any help; you need a whole support industry with 1960s-era compatible technology. In any case, the heavy bits of the space station are already in orbit, and they've been designed and built for Shuttle, its arguably fatal compromises notwithstanding; and there's nothing else we want to do right now that requires the vehicle.
posted by dhartung at 11:42 PM on September 26, 2003


I am happy to stand corrected.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:58 AM on September 27, 2003


If you're really interested in Orion (beyond the SCIFI hype), I highly recommend Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship by George Dyson.

Orion was and is a good idea, but there are significant problems with operating one from within a biosphere, or even from LEO (fallout's a bitch). A moon-launched Orion doesn't have these problems, but that doesn't solve the problem of getting there in the first place.
posted by Cerebus at 11:04 AM on September 27, 2003


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