Despite the success of Shenzhou 4, Chinese program managers decided that an originally planned two-astronaut three-day profile was too ambitious for a first mission, so it was scaled back to one person for one day. This had happened before, in 1960, when the Soviet Union had originally planned that its first spaceflight should be for a day (in the end, Yuri Gagarin’s mission was scaled down to a single orbit).
Keeping to the wintertime launch pattern, the first manned mission was scheduled for 15th October 2003. Heralded by a sudden blast of Siberian air, temperatures fell by 8°C to 12°C. Launch towers, assembly buildings, gantries, and machinery stood against the harsh desert landscape, with the light and dark browns of the low surrounding mountains as a backdrop. It was still dark when a small bus arrived at the launch pad, heralded by five motorcycle escorts.
Now stepped forward a short, 38-year-old spacesuited man: Yang Liwei. His identity was no surprise at this stage, for his picture had already been published by the ever-indiscrete Wen Wei Po newspaper in Hong Kong. The suit was white, with blue seams, the red flag of China stitched onto his left shoulder. He carried what looked like a workman’s toolbox – but, in reality, the all-important control system for his spacesuit until he was plugged into to his cabin. Photographers were ready for him and their cameras flashed the moment he emerged. He raised his white-gloved right hand to acknowledge them, smiling in his black-and-white communications soft hat, his visor pushed back behind his neck. Right behind him were his two backup pilots, Nie Haisheng and Zhai Zhigang. They were there to take his place if for some reason something went wrong, but they must have known that the chances
of Yang Liwei changing his mind at this stage were as close to zero as made no difference.
From Suizhong in Liaoning, bom on 21st June 1965, Yang Liwei was the son of an economist father and a teaching mother; he excelled in mathematics at school. He had joined the People’s Liberation Army and then its Air Force, from whose aviation college he had graduated in 1987 and where he had accumulated 1,350 hr flying experience. Since then, he had been through endless theoretical and practical training, as well as survival training in the event that he came down far off course. Like Yuri Gagarin before him, he had made no secret of his desire to be first. Although he had set some time aside for ping-pong and basketball, he had rarely left the astronaut training center during the previous few years. He had never had the opportunity to bring his son Yang Ningkang to school and knew of his son’s teachers only by name, never personally. He rarely went to bed before midnight. He had only two weeks’ holiday a year, spent with his parents.
As he climbed down the steps of the bus, Yang Liwei could see that there were now hundreds of people assembled behind an orderly line on either side. The spacesuit is slightly awkward for walking – it is designed for sitting in a spaceship after all – and the wearer is just a little hunched, making him look shorter than his 168 cm, and it took him a couple of minutes to reach a preset standing microphone at the foot of the launch tower. But the hundreds of well-wishers applauded together as he took his final walk down to the pad in gray soft boots. The crowd comprised men, women, and schoolchildren, many in thick coats and scarves as protection against the cold but calm early morning air. Some local people were there in brightly colored traditional dress, too. They clapped and cheered, waving bouquets of flowers to wish Yang Liwei a bon voyage. Yang Liwei reached the microphone, saluted the commanding military officer, and, in a few short words, briefly reported that he was ready to fly and carry out his mission.
Now he chmbed into the elevator at the foot of the white Long March 2F rocket, which rapidly whisked him up nine floors to the top of the gantry. It was now three hours to lift-off, set for 09:00. Climbing into the cabin of his spacecraft, Shenzhou, was a complicated matter. First, grasping a rail above him, he shd on a white mattress over the sill of the spacecraft, the soft padding being necessary to make sure he did not tear his suit. By now, he was in the top module of Shenzhou. An orange – suited technician was there to pull in his legs and bring him in. Now Yang Liwei had to gently lower himself down the tunnel into the descent module below.
The descent module of Shenzhou is acom-shaped, with a porthole at either side, a tunnel in front, and instrument panels around the tunnel. The couch is individually contoured and set on springs so as to absorb a bumpy landing. Around the walls is soft padding, both to protect the astronaut in the event of bumps but also to avoid hard surfaces that might tear or damage suits. Once in his cabin, he closed the tunnel (the lever turns like an interconnecting door on a submarine). The technician closed up and evacuated the orbital module above him. He and his colleagues ran a series of tests to check both modules for airtightness. He was over 50 m above the ground and the rocket could just be felt rocking in the light wind.
Although there were two hours to go before launch, there was still much to do to prepare the rocket for flight. With Shenzhou now closed out, the gantry moved back from the top of the cabin. A rescue team of 14 people stood ready in case they were needed. If they were, the gantry could be rolled back up close to the cabin and the astronaut quickly evacuated. For this, there was an explosion-proof elevator or an escape slide and bomb-proof bunker. If the worst came to the worst and the rocket was in danger of exploding, the escape tower could be fired (the system was armed 15 min before take-off).
Over the next two hours, the gantry was pulled back and all the systems on the rocket were carefully checked. All the electric and electronic circuits were in order. The Long March 2F with storable fuels does not give any of the tell-tale signs of an impending launch, like the American Shuttle or the Russian Soyuz, where viewers can see cold liquid oxygen boiling off around the ready rocket. At 09:00, there was a dull thud beneath the rocket. The Long March 2F began to shake and the engines belched out the characteristic tell-tale orange and brown plume of the nitrogen fuels. Power built and built and, in seconds, the Long March 2F was rising slowly, ever so slowly, up its launch tower. Its rise seemed agonizingly slow as it stood out against the light blue sky. Safely some distance from the pad, the engineers and military watched, shielding their eyes; their hearts almost stopped as they watched the rocket rise. But, as the flames beneath passed the bottom of the tower, the Long March gathered momentum and could be visibly seen to accelerate. Twenty seconds after launch, sharding began to tumble from the rocket. No one had seen this on the four previous Long March 2F missions before, simply because they had all taken place at night, but the dropping of exterior shielding was a procedure familiar to the early European Ariane rockets and nothing to worry about. It was thermal weather protection blanketing to protect electronics on the interstage. Now the Long March 2F was rising ever faster, heading skyward, and could be seen bending over in its climb towards the east. The rocket had soon pitched over, a long needle with its four liquid-fuel strap-on boosters on the bottom still burning brightly. Down below, the burning engines looked ever more like a bright pulsing star as the Long March headed ever higher into the atmosphere.
Then, after two minutes, there was a sudden flash at the bottom of the rocket. The strap-on rockets had done their day’s work, had burnt out, and were now explosively separated from the main rocket. They tumbled back into the atmosphere, presumably to fall into uninhabited desert some place far downrange. The Long March 2F was soon 30 km high, outside the thickest part of the atmosphere. The
Launch of Shenzhou 5, the first daytime launch, soaring into a clear blue sky.
escape shroud was soon jettisoned, its rockets firing it clear of the cabin. Shenzhou was now exposed in the airless open. For Yang Liwei, natural light flooded in through the portholes. On Soyuz, Russian cosmonauts bring a mirror with them so that they can see the Earth recede below them, but we don’t know whether he did the same. All this time, Yang Liwei felt the vibration and roaring of the ascending rocket, the vibration (“infrasound resonance” in the official report) becoming painfully intense .
Thankfully, the ride became smoother as the strap-ons came off. In his hand was a chpboard pad and a pencil on a string and he noted each event in the launch sequence as it happened. Half a minute later, there was the next milestone as the main first stage fell away and the second stage took over. There was a brief moment of quiet before the second stage ignited, thrusting him back in his seat as the rocket sped for orbit. As the rocket climbed ever higher, 50 km, 80 km, 100 km, it pitched ever more over in its climb. The emphasis now was less and less on height, more on building up horizontal speed as it headed towards orbit, even though it did continue to climb – 15,000 km/hr, then 20,000 km/hr. Yang Liwei crossed over the coast of China. The Sun was ever brighter above, for it was midday down below as he headed over the Pacific. In his cabin was a small bobble on a string, which fell down towards the vertical as his rocket climbed ever higher. Back on the ground, the rocket had long disappeared from sight, leaving only a smoky trail in the high atmosphere and on the ground a sizzling launch pad, still steaming.
At 09:10, the engines of the Long March 2F died, their fuel exhausted, their job done. The second stage separated. It fell back into a lower orbit, where it began to tumble slowly. Amateur astronomers spotted it in the night sky over Matija Peme, Slovenia, only three hours later. Yang Liwei heard and felt the clunking sound of Shenzhou separating automatically, pushing it briefly forward of the cylindrical second stage. No longer was he thrust back in his seat. Now encountering weightlessness for the first time, he could see his bobble begin to float and the pencil on his checklist began to wander across his cabin. Over the blue of the Pacific Ocean, Yang Liwei was now in orbit and China had become the third country in the world to send a man into space, on 15th October 2003. Had the rocket failed to get Yang Liwei into orbit and had he splashed down in the Pacific, three ships had been on standby to pick him up. Now the ships – the Beihai 102, the De Кип, and De Hi – were stood down and told they could return to port.
Although Shenzhou was in orbit, it was important to check that it was the right orbit – was it high and stable enough for the mission to last? Second, would the spaceship’s equipment deploy properly? Signals from Shenzhou were calibrated with all the tracking data sent back to mission control. All was in order and Shenzhou was in the perfect, accurate planned orbit: 197-328 km. It was the 30th straight launch success for China in a row, with a reliability achieved only after careful preparation, endless checking, fanatical quality control, and earlier heartbreaking failures. Next, 22 min into the mission, Yang Liwei felt the vibration of the solar panels deploying on the propulsion module behind him and the orbital module in front. Signals in the cabin showed that Shenzhou could now take power directly from the solar panels and would no longer be dependent entirely on its batteries. The good news was relayed in telemetry down to the Yuan Wang 2 tracking ship in the southern ocean. Shenzhou communicated to the ground on seven frequencies: ultrashort-wave (biomedical data), short-wave (voice), S-band (telemetry), and C-band (tracking data). Television pictures were sent from the cabin using a digital imaging compression system .
Shenzhou had now deployed properly, was in the correct orbit, and was stable in flight. By 09:34, Yang Liwei was over the Yuan Wang 3 tracking ship in the South Atlantic. “I’m feeling good”, he relayed back by radio to the tracking ship as he passed overhead. Li Jinai, head of the manned spaceflight project, now declared that the first stage of the mission could be considered a success. At 09:42, just half an hour after it entered orbit, the launch of Shenzhou 5 was announced by the official media in Beijing. Telecasts of the launch quickly followed, beginning a day of saturation coverage in the Chinese printed and electronic media. Originally, the Chinese had agreed to a live broadcast of the launch, but lost their nerve at the last minute, but they need not have worried.
By 10:30, Yang Liwei was back over China, having flown around the world in 90 min. Had anything been evidently amiss at this stage, Shenzhou 5 could have come down on either the third or the fourth orbit. But there was no need. Yang Liwei called in to Beijing mission control and the ground told him he could now go ahead and take off his gloves. Things were going smoothly and he knew he could begin to relax. Have an early lunch and take a rest, they told him. The menu, the record shows, was sweet-and-sour shredded meat, pork and sliced chicken with eight-treasure rice including nuts, with a hot pickle from Sichuan called Zachai followed by herbal tea with some traditional medicine mixed in. The food was stickily coated to prevent crumbs from floating around the cabin. For the next two hours, he was officially resting, although, like any previous space traveler, he almost certainly spent the time looking out of his two portholes at the blues, whites, and browns of our planet by day, the sunrises and sunsets, and, by night, the lights of the Earth’s cities and the spectacle of the Earth’s weather, lightning, and storms. At 13:39, during his fourth orbit, he took out his logbook to write down his account of everything that had happened so far. Down below, his spaceship had been spotted by amateur observers crossing dark skies over Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and Washington, DC. Yang Liwei flew the spaceship manually, using its translational and rotational hand controllers to maneuver its 52 thrusters.
The rest was important, for, at 15:57, over the Pacific, Shenzhou came to a key moment in the mission. This was the time for the propulsion system to fire to make an orbital change and get the spaceship in the right orbit for landing the following morning. On the fifth orbit, the propulsion system duly fired. The bum raised the perigee so that the spaceship was now in an almost circular orbit of 331-338 km, crossing the equator at 42.4° – an orbit that covered the same ground every 31 orbits. Already, China’s first manned flight had already gone past Yuri Gagarin’s single orbit in 1961 and John Glenn’s three orbits the following year – and he had maneuvered in orbit. Still, to demonstrate the caution of the mission, he did not enter the orbital module. For some of the telecasts, he even kept his visor down.
An hour later, at 17:05, on his sixth orbit, Yang Liwei began a live telecast from Shenzhou 5. Pictures showed him smihng and waving, his clipboard and pencil drifting in weightlessness in the cabin, and clear pictures of the Earth. He unfurled miniature versions of the national flag of China and the United Nations. In a second telecast at 20:00, he talked with his wife Zhang Yumei in the mission control center. They had been married since 1990 and she was there with their eight-year-old son. She asked him about what he could see outside. The camera showed the blue Earth and one of Shenzhou’s solar panels. His young son seemed most interested in the space food. The telecasts were relayed from the tracking ships by satellite through compressed digital video to mission control in Beijing.
As he orbited the Earth, his control panels and three computers gave him up-to – date information on the progress of his mission. A world map displayed his position over the Earth’s surface. Another readout displayed altitude, speed, flight time, temperature, humidity, and the status of all systems on Shenzhou. Data were displayed in Chinese characters and alarms were read out by a pre-recorded voice, much like that of the automated voice in an airplane cockpit (pilots call her “Bitchin’ Betty”). Like Yuri Gagarin on the first space mission, Yang Liwei carried a tray of biological experiments: plant and vegetable seeds, 36 species in all, green peppers, tomatoes, and corn.
23:00 marked official sleep time. Yang Liwei had been up since early morning and needed sleep to prepare himself for the busy and dangerous re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere the next day. Passing over the tracking ship on the 12th orbit at 00:18, telemetry showed that Yang Liwei was indeed asleep and that all was well in the quiet cabin. It was not a long sleep, for Yang was awake again by 02:52, but it was enough. At 04:34 on the 13th orbit over China, ground control confirmed that they would go ahead with a landing on the next orbit. Yang Liwei acknowledged this and began preparations for coming down. In the landing area, the senior meteorologist had just issued his forecast. Wind speed would be a firm 5 m/sec, visibihty over 10 km, and temperatures -4°C to -8°C, all within acceptable limits. The landing site was the district of Dorbod Xi in Siziwang Si county, central Inner Chinese Mongolia, 100 km north of Hohhot, 41.3°N, 111.4°E, with a backup site at Alashanyouqi, close to the launcher center itself. In case things went wrong, China had taken precautions in the event of a landing badly off course. Shortly before the mission, China made an agreement with the Australian government for a search – and-rescue mission to be mounted if the yuhangyuan came down in the deserted outback.
At 05:00, Yang Liwei, now passing over South America, was approaching the moment of truth, for landing and take-off are the most dangerous moments of any spaceflight. Yang Liwei was in contact with the Yuan Wang 3 again as he approached the Namibian coastline. Nearby, China had its main overseas ground tracking station in Swakopmund, Namibia. Between the two tracking systems, they were able to apply the maximum possible surveillance to this critical stage of the mission. Shenzhou 5 was now flying backwards, its retrorockets pointed in the direction of travel, the craft carefully aligned at the correct angle to the Earth’s horizon. At 05:04, the stations confirmed that Shenzhou was in the correct position for re-entry and issued the command to proceed. At 05:36, the orbital module was jettisoned to begin its period of flight as an independent space laboratory.
At 05:38, the retrorocket system for Shenzhou 5 blasted for three minutes. It was soon clear that it had fired for the proper duration and thrust, and, at 05:44, Yang Liwei reported the bum had gone perfectly. The bum was sufficient to cut hundreds of kilometers an hour off Shenzhou’s path, taking it out of orbit. Shenzhou swept in a vast arc over Africa, Arabia, and west of the Himalayas. The shape of Shenzhou was such that it was possible to control the craft as it descended and generate a cushion of air underneath the cabin so as to steer it to a precise re-entry point. Just a minute before reaching China’s western border, at 05:59, the propulsion system was jettisoned, to burn up in the atmosphere later in a fireball over north China. The descent module was on its own now, its heat shield pointing in the direction of travel. By 06:00, the descent cabin was over western China. At 06:04, Shenzhou encountered the denser layers of the Earth’s atmosphere. The heat shield began to turn red hot and then white hot. An ion sheath of particles surrounded the cabin, cutting Yang Liwei off from contact with the ground for several minutes. Later, the Chinese admitted that mission control lost contact with him for a significant period of the descent and may not have recovered contact (although the recovery teams did).
The landing area was in Inner Mongolia, north of Hohhot, well to the east of Jiuquan, north-west of Beijing and west of the Beijing-to-Ulan Bator railway. Five recovery helicopters were already in the air, hovering like bees, ready to spot the descending cabin and rush to retrieve the astronaut. Yang Liwei was now falling through the atmosphere, the cabin coohng. He flicked the switch on to activate the parachute once the system sensed denser air.
At 06:11, at 15,000 m, out came the pilot parachute, quickly reported by Yang Liwei. “I’m still fine”, he reassured the ground on short-wave radio, “though it’s warm in here”, he added. At 06:14, he dropped the heat shield, which was no longer needed. Without its weight, the cabin would now descend more slowly. This was also necessary to expose small rockets used to cushion the final descent. Now the drogue parachute was out and the cabin’s speed had fallen from 201 m/sec to 80 m/sec. By 06:16, the large, l,200-m2-diameter main parachute was out. “Deployed normally”, reported Yang Liwei as Shenzhou 5 descended onto the dawn grasslands of Chinese Mongolia. Had the main parachute failed, a backup one would have popped out, but it was a third smaller and the landing would have been rougher. Soon he was spotted by one of the recovery helicopters. On the ground, a team of cross-country vehicles was parked in a line, ready to set off in pursuit. It was just getting daylight and they still had their headlights on. The landing was so accurate that an image of the descending Shenzhou was relayed by one of the camera crews with the landing team. “Parachute deployed” had already been signaled around the world on the internet, as space enthusiasts the world over stayed up during the night to follow the mission.
06:23: as Shenzhou 5 finally reached the ground, three small solid-fuel rockets at the base of the cabin fired for a second to cushion the last moment of the descent, sending up plumes of dust engulfing the spaceship. The Shenzhou cabin comes in at quite a pace and it is a bumpy landing without the final soft-landing rockets, as Russian cosmonauts have reported when they have not fired properly. The soft – landing rocket can also have the effect of tipping the cabin over on its side, exactly as happened this time to Yang Liwei. The parachute is then dropped, so as to prevent wind from catching it and dragging the cabin.
No one saw the precise moment of landing, but a helicopter crew radioed in at 06:24 that it had spotted the parachute on the ground and gave coordinates. The news was relayed around the world immediately. Two minutes later, a team of crosscountry vehicles was on its way, bumping across the grasslands. Helicopter #3 spotted the cabin first, estimating it was about 7 km away. The crew managed to contact Yang Liwei on short wave at 06:30. Three minutes later, the first helicopter had touched down beside the cabin. Yang Liwei was still inside and their priority was to get him out safely.
Yang Liwei emerging from the cabin, victorious.
Yang Liwei getting his feet back on the ground.
It took the orange-suited rescuers only five minutes to open the hatch at the top of the descent module, now lying on its side, and get Yang Liwei out. When they opened the hatch, they could see him still strapped into his cabin, waving. They gradually lifted him out, letting him get his land legs back again after a day’s weightlessness. He slid out of the hatch onto the ground and, looking just dazed from all the attention, waved to the rescuers, journalists, and television crews. Yang Liwei had landed just before dawn, but there were good streams of early-morning light now. He had traveled 600,000 km in 21 hr 23 min and circled the Earth 14 times. Yang Liwei took off his communications soft hat and put his gloves into knee pockets. Yang Liwei is recovered and well, the helicopter team formally reported at 06:38. Years later, though, it transpired that the landing had been so violent that Yang Liwei had split his lip on his microphone, made messier by his hanging upside as the cabin keeled over, so rescuers handed him towels to clean up his bloody face. The landing point was Amugulang Ranch, Dorbod Xi, Siziwang. Liang Qi, head of recovery operations, explained that the site was chosen because of its flatness and the lack of power lines or inhabited buildings.
Yang Liwei sat down in a director’s chair to talk to doctors, journalists, and the rescue team. This done, he was brought to a big medical tent and put into blue astronaut coveralls. He was given a white scarf to keep him warm and asked to pose for photographs with his rescuers. Then he was brought away by helicopter, first for a plane journey to Beijing. Soon he talked to his wife and son in mission control.
There was warm enthusiasm for the flight across China. Whilst it may have lacked the fervid joy with which Soviet citizens greeted Yuri Gagarin in 1961, there was evidence of a great sense of satisfaction with China’s achievement. People’s Daily ran 100,000 extra copies which were quickly snapped up, as were other papers. There were demonstrations in some towns. School children drew pictures of spaceships and showed them to the press and television. Wall posters appeared, combining a mixture of twenty-first-century techno with more traditional styles of socialist reahsm; 10.2m stamps were printed in Yang Liwei’s honor. The People’s Liberation Army Daily triumphed: “For China this is the beginning and there will be no end.” China was undoubtedly heartened by the comments and praise that flooded in from political and space agency leaders the world over, for it was universally generous.
First, Yang Liwei was brought by plane to Beijing. As he came down the stairs, a band was ready to greet him. No sooner was he down the steps than he was presented with flowers and met by senior military and party officials and, once they had had their say, his relieved wife, Zhang Yumei. They were driven back to their apartment in the astronaut training center.
Weeks later, accompanied by his young son Ningkang, he opened an exhibition in Beijing of his Shenzhou 5 cabin, spacesuit, parachute, and model space food. The cabin then became part of the traveling show that went on to Hong Kong and Macau. When the cabin reached Shanghai, hundreds of thousands queued in freezing conditions to see Yang Liwei and his cabin on 24-hr exhibition. Yang Liwei later told the story of his flight to foreign audiences – travehng to the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, in 2004 to receive an award from Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine and to the International Astronautical Congress in
Valencia, Spain, the following year. He was promoted to General and put in charge of the yuhangyuan squad.
For Chinese space officials, leaders, technicians, and engineers, this was a time of relief, relaxation, and achievement. The 11-year project to put someone into space had reached its climax. Due diligence had been rewarded with its trouble-free outcome. As the official commentary put it, space travel had “long been the dream of our ancient civilization”, kept alive in stories and legends, like Chang e, the fairy who flew to the Moon, and Wan Hu who perished in a spaceship made of a kite, wickerwork chair, and fireworks.
The Shenzhou 5 orbital module continued its mission long after his return. The module carried out five maneuvers to readjust its orbit between then and the end of January, concluding its scientific mission successfully in March 2004 after
152 days. First, five days after the main cabin returned to the Earth, on 22nd October, it made a small height change up to 339-347 km, its operating height, then, on 2nd November to 329-333 km, on 5th November to 343-354 km, on 11th November to 357-367 km, with further adjustments reported on 24th and 31st December 2003 and on 22nd January 2004. The module carried a science payload and a Charge Couple Device (CCD) observation camera, mounted to the exterior of SZ-5 with a ground resolution of 1.6 m. The results were transmitted digitally to the Earth, including detailed information monitoring the Sun’s magnetic field. It reportedly carried a high-resolution telescope (1.6-m resolution) and a Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectrometer for ground surveys, with data received on gamma bursts and solar flares . It decayed on 30th May after 227 days.