SHENZHOU 6: A WEEK IN ORBIT
The objective of Shenzhou 6-а week-long flight by two astronauts – was announced the following year. The launcher and cabin were completed in June 2005 and shipped by rail to the launch site. Over 100 modifications were documented, compared to the earlier mission. A toilet, based on the system on Mir, had been added. The launch date leaked out in August, along with the names of the crews. Selected for the mission were Fei Junlong, aged 40, commander, and Nie Haisheng, aged 41, flight engineer. Backups were Wu Jie, aged 42, and Zhai Zhigang, aged 39, with, as support crew, Jing Haipeng, aged 39, and Liu Buoming, aged 39. The system for dealing with the press was more organized this time, with a proper system of accreditation put in place. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao arrived the night before the launch on 12th October 2005. President Hu Jintao opted to watch from mission control in Beijing.
Nie Haisheng was born deep inside China, in Yangdang, Zaoyang, Hubei, in 1964. His family was so poor and found such difficulty in paying for his education that he once had to give his teacher a rabbit in lieu of money. He borrowed textbooks, unable to afford any for himself, learning them by heart before returning them. Only two students from Yangdang Primary School made it to secondary school in his year and he had to work herding cattle through his holidays to pay his fees. He persuaded a visiting commissar to give him a chance in the Air Force. There, he excelled and was decorated for trying to save his plane when it spun out of control as a result of a compressor failure. He would not bail out until the last possible moment, but eventually did so, parachuting unconscious into a rice field.
Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng suited up in their Sokol suits, emerged from the preparation area, saluted, and reported to the base commander and, to applause from flower-carrying well-wishers, boarded the minibus to bring them down to the pad. Snow flurries were blowing as they entered the Shenzhou 6 cabin in darkness at 06:15. Live television coverage from Jiuquan began an hour before take-off and viewers could see the rocket still clamped in its gantry. With two minutes to go, the cameras settled on the rocket ready on the daylight pad. After a brief burst of brown and orange flame, the CZ-2F lifted slowly off the pad at 09:00. It rose steadily,
discarding debris at 25 sec and going into cloud at 45 sec. Pictures showed the two yuhangyuan in their spacious cabin.
The rocket emerged from the cloud and bent over in its climb to the north-east. The escape tower blew away in a burst of light. Look-back cameras installed on the side of the CZ-2F showed spectacular pictures of the boosters falling away and tumbling back over Gansu, where some of the fragments were later found by herdsmen. Television coverage alternated between the look-back views, the two men in the cabin, and mission control in Beijing and its screen showing the parameters of the flight path to orbit. In the event of a launch emergency, four downrange landing sites (Jiuquan east, Yinchuan, Yulin, and Handau) and three sea sites were marked (Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and Pacific Ocean).
At 09:13, Shenzhou 6 entered 193-337 km, 42.4°, 91 min, 31-repeater orbit over the Chinese coast, clearly visible below. As it crossed over the Pacific, television from the cabin flickered and was interrupted as Shenzhou was picked up by Yuan Wang 2. Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng waved to viewers and opened their faceplates. In the course of the first orbit, they were picked up in turn by the other Yuan Wang in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.
At 10:31, Kashi ground station acquired Shenzhou 6 as it came over western China. By 11:00, the two men were hungry after their early start and lunch break was declared. Shenzhou 6 had entered an elliptical orbit but, at 4:00 pm, on the fifth orbit, the path was circularized at the standard 343 km. At 17:31, Fei Junlong opened the hatch into the orbital module – an operation not carried out on Shenzhou 5 – so they now had the use of the two cabins. The mission settled down into a standard routine and, from that evening, the yuhangyuan spoke to their families in mission control. By this stage, they had taken off their spacesuits and put on their blue coveralls. Shenzhou carried 50 kg of oxygen in tanks: typically, each astronaut consumed 900 g of oxygen a day but exhaled 1 kg of carbon dioxide. Each astronaut drank 2.5 kg of water and ate 600 g of food worth 2,800 kcal a day. The suit weighed 11 kg and could last 6 hr in the event of a depressurization – enough time to return home. Television showed them writing their logs, eating, photographing the Earth, and moving about the cabin, making the occasional somersault. They spoke to President Hu Jintao.
On 14th October at 05:56, a second orbital correction was carried out on the 30th orbit to raise the perigee back to 343 km. In the event of an emergency return to the Earth, 13 sites were selected: in China, Sichuan, and Mongolia and, further afield, Australia, Arabia, North Africa, Western Europe, the United States, and South America. But the flight was uneventful and there was little to report as the mission progressed, even in the Chinese press (there was almost no coverage in the Western media). The official cost of the mission was reported in at ¥900m (€90m). They looked out for the Great Wall, reportedly visible from space, but didn’t see it, presuming that it blended in naturally with its surroundings. They brushed their teeth with a form of chewing gum developed as a mouth cleaner.
17th October was recovery day. Leading dignitaries arrived at the mission control center in Beijing. Shenzhou 6 rotated to the right attitude for its re-entry burn on the 80th orbit. On the ground, six helicopters and 14 cross-country vehicles
Shenzhou 6 crew in the cabin – much more spacious than Soyuz.
readied themselves at the primary landing site of Siziwang, Jiuquan being the backup site.
The cabin went into re-entry at 04:07, came out of blackout at 04:18, and was picked up on radar. The main parachute came out at 04:19, with touchdown at 04:33. It was still dark in the recovery area and the first helicopter arrived at 04:53, reporting that the cabin was upright. The recovery squad moved in. Fei Junlong emerged from the cabin at 05:38, followed by Nie Haisheng a minute later. By the time they were lifted out, a small crowd had gathered to cheer them. They were put into easy chairs and offered tea, chocolate, and noodle soup. The landing was covered live on TV, with an outside broadcast from the home of the two sets of relieved and tearful parents. It was later revealed that, in the event of things going wrong during re-entry, the cabin had a survivable black box (although it was orange) measuring 17 x 10 x 20 cm and able to resist 1,000° temperatures and 10,000 G.
The 75-orbit mission had lasted for 115 hr 32 min. The cabin was in good condition and handed over two days later to its builder, CAST, at Changping railway station. The cabin was later put on display in the small museum at the astronaut training facility. Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng reached Beijing at 09:28 on a special plane and were greeted by a band, flowers, and applause from well-wishers. Fei Junlong was promoted to General and was put in charge of the astronaut squad in 2012.
The mission of its orbital module continued, with occasional reports in the
Chinese press. After an initial period operating at 333-336 km, with occasional adjustments to maintain the 31-orbit repeater, on 21st January 2006 and 19th March, it raised its orbit back to a standard operating height of 343-356 km. On 28th May, after seven months, its orbit had fallen slightly to 337-339 km, so a small maneuver was made to raise it back to its operational altitude of 347-356 km. The decay rate was slow because of the solar minimum, which happened to be an exceptionally quiet minimum, causing much-reduced rates of friction in the upper atmosphere. A similar height-raising maneuver was made on 12th September. It raised its orbit on 7th February 2007 to 346-356 km, which had no obvious repeater. The orbit was raised again on 6th June 2007. Its mission eventually ended on 1st April 2008 after about 30 months. Reports on scientific experiments were not readily available and it is possible that they were not carried.