The manned Chinese space program literally rolled out for the first time on 9th June 1999. Pictures were published on the internet of a brand new rocket which looked like a Long March 2E at the bottom but with the top resembling the Russian Soyuz. Engineers mingled around the base of a large crawler used to move the white-and-red rocket across to its new launch site in Jiuquan. In the foreground, on the right, stood a 12-storey blue-gray steel assembly tower, with six swing arms reaching out at the side to grapple the rocket. Even more astonishing, in the left background was something that looked remarkably like the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral, the largest structure in the world. The right front door of the 80-m-tall structure was rolled half down, to indicate that the new rocket had emerged therefrom. As was the normal custom, the Chinese had helpfully marked the rocket with the national flag on the top and “Long March 2F” in Chinese and Roman script vertically down the side. Later, the rocket was to acquire a special name: the Shenjian, or “magic arrow”. The new Long March, never before seen, had four strap-on rockets on the bottom. At the top was, just as on the Russian Soyuz, an escape tower and four aerodynamic flanges to be used to drop the cabin out of the nose cone during an emergency.
The photographs caused a sensation among China space-watchers. No one had expected these pictures to appear before a first launch and skeptics denounced them as forgeries. Still less did anyone expect such clear photographs, well scaled by the accompanying personnel, never mind the launch tower and the huge vehicle assembly building in the background. The Chinese did not publish the pictures, which, it transpired, had been taken by a Dutch engineer visiting the launch site in preparation for a scientific mission – and who had seen the rollout by chance. As ever, American intelligence agencies remained typically inscrutable, for there was no way that their spycraft would not have noticed the rollout, which took place in clear weather. Later, the National Reconnaissance Office admitted that it had been keeping an eye on a new building at Jiuquan since the mid-1990s – it had spotted the rollout of a full-scale mockup of the new launcher earlier in May 1998.
The Shenzhou rocket rolling out. Courtesy: Paolo Ulivi and Hang Heng Rong.
Preparations for the first mission took five months and were punctuated by delay. In August, the service module had to be taken apart to replace potentially faulty instruments. Engineers uncovered wiring problems and a gyroscope failed and had to be replaced. The new Long March 2F rocket did not take to the skies until 19th November 1999. Eight YF-20 engines fired together to lift the satellite into the dark skies. Night turned to day as the flames billowed under the Long March 2F at Jiuquan launch center. The gleaming white rocket, the red flag with five stars on two sides, headed skyward, the pin-shaped escape tower shooting free after 130 sec. Night-time had been chosen in order to track the later stages of the ascent to orbit through China’s clear winter skies.
Although there had been no pre-launch announcement from China, there was now one way whereby space-watchers could predict upcoming Chinese manned launch attempts – a technique learned from Soviet times: the location of its seaborne tracking ships, the Yuan Wang (see Chapter 2). In the period before the mission, these deployed as follows:
Yuan Wang 1: North-eastern China/north Pacific (to track entry into orbit);
Yuan Wang 2: North-east of New Zealand/southern ocean;
Yuan Wang 3: Coast of Namibia/south Atlantic (to prepare for retro-fire); and
Yuan Wang 4: South-west Australia/Indian Ocean.
During Soviet times, the arrival of big Russian comships on station was a sure sign of planned manned, lunar, Mars, or Venus missions. Now, whenever rumors flew of
The orbital pathway for Shenzhou, circles showing the range of the tracking dishes. Courtesy: Sven Grahn.
an upcoming Chinese mission, the experts always asked: But where are the tracking ships?
Shenzhou settled down into an orbit of 197-325 km, inclination 42.6°, orbital period 89.74 min. Signals came back from orbit through no fewer than seven different wavebands and confirmed that the main solar panels had deployed to provide electrical energy for the spacecraft. There was sustained applause in Beijing mission control when the many mission controllers got confirmation of the good news. Back at the launch pad, the task of the rocket team was done and they set off Uttle firecrackers to celebrate on the hot, sooty, still smoldering launch pad. The Shenzhou that flew was actually the electrical test version (three others had been built – two for ground tests and one for thermal tests). The orbital module had neither solar panels nor a life-support system. Shenzhou flew in a 31-orbit repeater pattern that brought it exactly over the Jiuquan launch center, ideal for possible future rendezvous missions.
On board Shenzhou were several kilos of biological experiments (10 vegetables and 30 medicinal herbs), plants, a dummy, and some commemorative souvenirs. The vegetables were 10 g each of seeds of melons, tomatoes, peas, radish, rape, green peppers, maize, and barley. The dummy, or mannequin, was 1.7 m tall, dressed in a silver-gray spacesuit, and laid at 15° to the horizontal, with his knees tucked up, much as a real astronaut would be. Sensors in the cabin recorded the mannequin’s journey, in particular the temperature, humidity, and oxygen level. Everything was done to ensure that the 14-part dummy mimicked human behavior as closely as possible: the same weight, the same heat, consuming 600 L of oxygen a day, and generating 12 MJ of energy. Also on board were the flags of China, Hong Kong, Macau, first-day stamp covers, a red banner signed by project participants, and 1,001 commemorative gold plaques.
Shenzhou made no maneuvers while in orbit. After 20 hr 20 min circling the Earth, in the course of which it made 14 orbits, retrorockets fired over the coast off west Africa (35.2°S, 0°E) and the cabin began a long searing descent through the flames of the upper atmosphere. The retro-fire command was sent up by the Yuan Wang 3 comship – not an easy task, for the weather had taken a turn for the worst in the previous 20 hr and the ship was now pounding into 10-m-tall waves, with white water washing over the sides. Shenzhou swung in a giant arc over western Asia. On re-entering at 80 km, a hot plasma shell formed around the cabin. Radar picked up the descending cabin and controllers relayed directions to three circling helicopters. Shenzhou came down gently under its parachute just to the east of where it had been launched, at 19:41 the next day, after 21 hr 11 min aloft. Parachutes deployed high in the thin atmosphere. As it came into land, four small solid-fuel retrorockets fired at a distance of 150 cm to break the fall for the final distance. The landing took place in darkness at 41°N, 105°E, 110 km from Wuhai, 52 min after retro-fire, about 415 km east of the launch site. The cabin came down 12 km from the point predicted and the heat shield was found 5 km away. The area selected was steppe grassland – so selected because of its flatness. The descent cabin was brought back to Beijing and displayed in triumph across the country. Meantime, the front cabin, the orbital module, which had been separated just before the firing of the retrorockets, made a separation burn and stayed for 12 days longer in orbit until 1st December, when it lost altitude to 122 km and decayed.