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Detail of 921 Shroud
Detail of 921 Shroud - 4,233 bytes. 81 x 231 pixels.

Class: Manned. Type: Spacecraft. Nation: China. Craft.Crew Size: 2. Total Length: 8.3 m. Maximum Diameter: 2.4 m. Total Habitable Volume: 10.00 m3. Total Mass: 8,200 kg.

FLASH! - First photos of CZ-2F launch vehicle with payload shroud. First unpiloted test flight of the new Chinese manned spacecraft has been announced for October 1999. The shroud is clearly based on Soyuz, but with a smaller diameter upper section, modified separation motors, lighter abort tower. These are consistent with the spacecraft described previously and illustrated here. Uncertain are the arrangement of the solar panels - four are said to be carried, but whether in parallel on the forward orbital module and aft service module (as in earlier drawing) or arranged at 90 degree angles only on service module (as in latest drawing here) is not known. These photographs refute the press report that the spacecraft would use the new Zenit-derived Lox/Kerosene launch vehicle said to be under development. These photos were originally posted to an on-line forum. They were said to be scanned from a brochure of a an Inner-Mongolian construction company that had worked on the launch facilities. The photo was said to have been taken in May, 1998. The possibility has been raised that the photo is a fake, but the shroud differs in detailed and subtle ways from any known Soyuz shroud, which would support its authenticity.

The Chinese perfected ballistic re-entry vehicle techniques very early in their space program with their FSW series of photo-reconnaissance satellites. These spacecraft, which first successfully launched in 1976 (the first attempt, in 1974 was a launch failure; the second, in 1975, crashed to earth when the parachute failed). The FSW had an overall mass sufficient for a simple manned capsule (2500 kg), but the re-entry vehicle itself was too small for a human occupant. In 1978 photos were released showing Chinese astronauts in impressive space suits being trained in altitude chambers and at the controls of an elaborate space shuttle-like cockpit. This came to nothing, however, and if there was some kind of program at that time it was cancelled.

Proj 921 SpacecraftProj 921 Spacecraft - Chinese Project 921 Spacecraft. Provisional drawing based on description and drawing of earlier design. Four solar panels, Soyuz-shaped re-entry vehicle, cylindrical forward orbital module, androgynous docking system. 11,443 bytes. 246 x 414 pixels.

Then in 1996 it was reported that two Chinese astronauts, Wu Jie and Li Qinglong, were undergoing training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Russia. The Russians also sold to the Chinese several examples of Soviet spacecraft technology, including Soyuz life support systems, androgynous docking systems, and space suits. The Chinese in training were reported to be the leaders of a cadre of Chinese astronauts that would prepare for a first Chinese manned space flight before the Year 2000 - announcing the beginning of the ‘Chinese Century’, in which China will be the richest, most populous, and eventually the most powerful nation on Earth.

CZ-2F on pad FullCZ-2F on pad Full 70,159 bytes. 673 x 856 pixels.

Philip Clark reported more details of the program soon thereafter. It was called Project 921, the spacecraft would have a mass of 8.4 tonnes, be launched on a derivative of the largest Chinese booster, the CZ-2E, and be similar in configuration to the Soviet Soyuz spacecraft. Launches would take place from the Jiuquan launch site, where SPOT satellite photos show new launch pad construction. Following initial test flights, long range plans were to include docking of two Project 921 spacecraft in orbit to form a small orbital laboratory. Later Mir-sized space stations would be launched by larger liquid oxygen-kerosene boosters.

CZ-2F on padCZ-2F on pad 39,514 bytes. 337 x 428 pixels.

As is always the case, it seems there have been program delays and the first flight may be difficult to accomplish by the Year 2000. Yet perhaps the beginning of a new space race can be perceived - one that would pit a declining superpower against its successor in the first half of the next century…. References: 286 .

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Last update 11 June 1999.
Contact Mark Wade with any corrections, additions, or comments.

© Mark Wade, 1999 .