What is the current status of China’s manned missions (Shenzhou Satellite)?

China is on a quest to establish dominance in space through its space missions, to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Manned missions or crewed missions are a very important part of China’s space missions. The most recent manned space mission was on board the Shenzhou 13 spacecraft that successfully carried 3 astronauts to the Tianhe, the core module of the Tiangong space station which is under the assembly phase currently in space. Let us look at how China’s manned space program has shaped up to what it is today.

What is the China Manned Space Program (CMS)?

China’s crewed spaceflights fall under the China Manned Space Program (CMS), also called Project 921, and are organized, managed, and controlled by the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA). The CMS director is currently Zhou Jianping who has held this position since 2006. The CMS has three steps or phases as part of its aim. These are:-

  • Crewed spacecraft launch and return.
  • Space laboratory with capabilities of extravehicular activities, space rendezvous and spacecraft docking procedures.
  • Long term space station.(More on China’s Space Station here.)

Currently, China has managed to conquer two of its phases, with the third phase underway right now.

The first phase of China’s Manned Space Program

The first phase preparations began back in 1992, with the development of the Long March 2F, China’s first human-rated launch vehicle. It was based on the Long March 2E, but with a launch escape mechanism and redundancy in the control system. (More on the Long March series rockets here.)

Shenzhou 1, the first unmanned Shenzhou spacecraft, was launched from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on November 20, 1999, and entered a planned orbit. To achieve the deadline by the end of 1999, the ground electrical test model was employed during this test flight. The spacecraft’s return capsule successfully detached from the other components and landed undamaged in Inner Mongolia the next day. Despite the fact that only a few systems were tested, the mission was a success for the Shenzhou spacecraft and Long March 2F rocket.

Shenzhou’s second test flight took place on January 10, 2001. Shenzhou 2, China’s first unmanned spacecraft, was launched into orbit and remained in orbit for seven days until the return capsule separated and landed safely. China launched Shenzhou 3 and Shenzhou 4 in 2002, both of which were successful. All of the program’s systems had completed the tests flawlessly, suggesting that a manned mission could be launched.

China’s First human spaceflight

Shenzhou 5 carried the first Chinese astronaut, pilot Yang Liwei, on a 21-hour spaceflight on October 15, 2003, following the previous four Shenzhou missions, which were uncrewed test flights conducted during a three-year period (1999–2002). After Russia and the United States, China became the third country to launch a crewed spacecraft. Shenzhou 6 was launched on October 12, 2005, and carried two astronauts for five days. Shenzhou 7 was launched on September 25, 2008, with three astronauts aboard; one of them, commander Zhai Zhigang, completed China’s first spacewalk.

The second phase of China’s Manned Space Program

China launched the second phase, which consisted of multiple space laboratory flights, to improve China’s human spaceflight skills and prepare for the building of a future space station.

China started off the second phase by launching Long March 7, a new generation medium-lift launch vehicle with a larger payload capacity to low Earth orbit, for the first time. In September 2011, China launched the Tiangong 1 space station, and in November 2011, the unmanned Shenzhou 8 docked with Tiangong 1. Shenzhou 9, China’s first crewed mission to Tiangong 1, launched on June 16, 2012, carrying Liu Yang, China’s first female astronaut.

Soon after, Tiangong 2 was sent into space in September 2016. It was a more advanced space laboratory than Tiangong 1, with more advanced capabilities and equipment. Shenzhou 11 was launched a month later and docked with Tiangong 2. Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong, two Chinese astronauts, boarded Tiangong 2 and stayed for roughly 30 days, setting China’s record for the longest human spaceflight mission and demonstrating the practicality of astronauts’ medium-term stay in space. Soon after, Tianzhou 1, China’s first cargo spaceship, docked with Tiangong 2 and conducted numerous in-orbit propellant refueling tests, completing the Second Step of CMS successfully.

The third phase of China’s Manned Space Program – Tiangong Space Station

The Third Step aims to complete the construction of China’s space station Tiangong.  It can be divided into two phases, the demonstration of key technologies and assembly & construction of the long-term space station itself.

The Long March 5B rocket launched on April 29, 2021, carrying the 22,500 kg Tianhe core module, China’s heaviest and most complex spacecraft produced independently. About 494 seconds after launch, the core module entered the preset orbit, signaling the commencement of China’s space station’s in-orbit assembly.

The Long March 7 rocket launched Tianzhou 2, the first cargo ship to the space station, which docked with the Tianhe core module 8 hours later. Astronaut supplies, space station equipment, extravehicular space suits, and propellant were among the items included in the cargo.

Shenzhou 12, the first crewed mission to Tianhe, was launched on June 17, 2021. 6 hours 32 minutes after launch, the spacecraft completed China’s first crewed autonomous fast rendezvous and docking. The first three crew members to live in Tiangong Space Station were Nie Haisheng, Liu Boxing, and Tang Hongbo. Two of the Shenzhou 12 crew members took part in the space station’s first spacewalk, which lasted 6 hours 46 minutes, exceeding the previous record of 20 minutes set during the Shenzhou 7 mission in 2008. On September 17, 2021, the Shenzhou 12 crew successfully returned to Earth.

Conclusion : The Shenzhou 13 and Future of the Space Station Tiangong

Shenzhou 13 was launched on October 15, 2021, and docked at Tianhe core module 6.5 hours later. The three-person crew will stay for six months, making it the longest mission since the program began. They are now stationed on the in-flight assembly space station, where they are monitoring activity. Tiangong Space Station will start the application and development phase in 2023 after completion of construction, which is expected to span at least 10 years and maybe up to 15 years.

With lofty goals for space exploration, research, and commercialization, China’s objectives stretch years into the future. Chinese astronauts have been barred from the International Space Station for a long time owing to political and legal constraints imposed by the United States, which is why it has long been a desire of China to establish its own station, and now it is very close to achieving that dream.

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