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astronautix.com Chinese Manned Spacecraft


Spacecraft: Tsien Spaceplane 1949.

In 1949 Tsien Hsue-shen, the leading expert in high-speed aerodynamics working in America, applied the knowledge learned from German rocket developments to the design of a practical intercontinental rocket transport. He proposed a 5,000 km single stage winged rocket clearly derived from V-2 aerodynamics. The 22,000 kg rocket would carry ten passengers from New York to Los Angeles in 45 minutes. It would take off vertically, with the rocket burning out after 60 seconds at 14,740 kph at 160 km altitude. After a coast to 500 km, it would re-enter the atmosphere and enter a long glide at 43 km altitude. Landing speed was to be 240 kph. Tsien’s fundamental theoretical work on this concept lead to him being called the ‘Father of the Dyna-soar’ (a 1950’s/1960’s delta winged spaceplane that was the ancestor of the space shuttle).


Spacecraft: Chinese Manned Capsule 1978.

First public announcement of a Chinese manned program came in February, 1978. By November the head of the Chinese Space Agency, Jen Hsin-Min, confirmed that China was working on a manned space capsule and a "Skylab" space station.

In January, 1980 the Chinese press reported a visit with the Chinese astronaut trainees at the Chinese manned spaceflight training centre. Photographs appeared of the astronauts in training. Pressure suited astronauts were shown in pressure chamber tests. Other trainees were shown at the controls of a space shuttle-like spaceplane cockpit.

A fleet of ships for recovery of manned capsules at sea was built and in May, 1980, the first capsule was recovered from the South Pacific after a suborbital launch. But then, suddenly, in December, 1980, Wang Zhuanshan, the Secretary General of the New China Space Research Society and Chief Engineer of the Space Centre of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, announced that Chinese manned flight was being postponed because of its cost. Fundamental economic development was given priority.

In the absence of any further information, it can only be conjectured that the manned capsule of this period was derived from the unmanned FSW spacecraft. The Chinese had perfected ballistic re-entry vehicle techniques very early in their space program with the FSW series of photo-reconnaissance satellites. The FSW was 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 spacecraft had an overall mass sufficient for a simple manned capsule (2500 kg), but the re-entry vehicle of the basic version seems a bit too small for a human occupant.


Spacecraft: Tsien Spaceplane 1978.

Tsien Hsue-shen’s manned spacecraft design proposed in the late 1970’s was a winged spaceplane, launched by a CZ-2 core booster with two large strap-on boosters. It so strongly resembled the cancelled US Dynasoar of 15 years earlier that US intelligence analysts wondered if it wasn’t based on declassified Dynasoar technical information. It would seem that this was to be preceded by a simpler manned capsule.

First public announcement of the manned program came in February, 1978. By November the head of the Chinese Space Agency, Jen Hsin-Min, confirmed that China was working on a manned space capsule and a "Skylab" space station.

In January, 1980 the Chinese press reported a visit with the Chinese astronaut trainees at the Chinese manned spaceflight training centre. Photographs appeared of the astronauts in training. Pressure suited astronauts were shown in pressure chamber tests. Other trainees were shown at the controls of a space shuttle-like spaceplane cockpit.

Suddenly, in December, 1980, Wang Zhuanshan, the Secretary General of the New China Space Research Society and Chief Engineer of the Space Centre of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, announced that Chinese manned flight was being postponed because of its cost. A Chinese manned spaceplane would not be considered again until the 1990's, when a Dynasoar-like orbiter was planned for Phase 3 of Project 921, to be operational in 2020.


Spacecraft: Project 921-2.

The first model of the planned Chinese 921-2 space station were shown at Expo 2000 at Hannover. This was made up of modules that appeared to be stretched versions of the orbital module of the Shenzhou spacecraft. The model showed a station consisting of:

  • A node module, about 3 m long and perhaps as little as 2.2 m in diameter, equipped with six docking ports. Attached to two of them were large rotating solar panels (following the same principle as those on the Shenzhou).
  • At either end of the node, two long (8 to 10 m x 2.2 to 3.0 m) modules, each equipped with ten docking ports. Attached to these were what appeared to be an airlock or resupply module, a propulsion module, and a two-beam truss with parabolic antennae.

Overall length of the relatively modest station would be about 20 m, with a total mass of under 40 tonnes. However the large number of unused docking ports indicated substantial room for expansion.

Spacecraft: Shenzhou.

Latest on Shenzhou - Chinese Manned Spacecraft:

Additional details of the spacecraft design have become available thanks to examination of a Chinese Astronautical Technology Research Group 1/40 scale model of the spacecraft by Steven S. Pietrobon. Meanwhile Space Daily reported in June that the second unmanned flight of the Shenzhou spacecraft would take place a year after the first, in October 2000. The first manned flight was expected in 2001. The second Shenzhou would save 100 kg in mass using a new wire harness mounting technique. Training of the Chinese astronauts ("Yuhangyuan") was also reported to be proceeding with commissioning of a unique form of zero gravity trainer. The 15 m in diameter and 21 m high chamber was part of a vertical wind tunnel, using speeds of up to 150 km/hour to levitate the Yuhangyuan trainees.

The model examined by Mr Pietrobon (see photos and accompanying discussion throughout this article) indicate the following new spacecraft details:

Propulsion system consisting of:
- Four large expansion ratio main engines at the base of the spacecraft
- High thrust pitch and yaw thrusters arranged in four pairs on the inside of the flared based of the service module.
- Low thrust pitch and yaw thrusters arranged in four pairs on the outside of the flared base. These can also, when used together, provide reverse thrust.
- Four pairs of roll / translation thrusters mounted at the spacecraft centre of gravity, just below the re-entry capsule. These are not placed at ninety degrees but two pairs to each side of the spacecraft, allowing use for translation in the vertical axis only.
- Four groups of four thrusters mounted at the base of the orbital module. These may provide a backup to the main orientation system as well as autonomous attitude control and manoeuvring capability to the orbital module when in free flight. Used in conjunction with the canted low thrust pitch and yaw thrusters at the base they could provide translation in both horizontal and vertical planes.

A complex arrangement of equipment is mounted at the top of the orbital module. This includes a semi-circular ring which seems to provide mounting for rectangular instruments or processing samples around its exterior. Three perpendicular 0.4 m extendible probes are of uncertain purpose. They may be instrument booms; a part of the orientation system; or part of a docking system. Extendible booms were explored by the United States as a docking device for the Apollo spacecraft. It was expected that Shenzhou would have a Russian-style androgynous docking system at the forward end of the orbital module. It may be that the current model instead provides an external instrument pallet for experiments, which could be replaced on eventual station ferry missions with a docking system.

Orientation instruments, evidently consisting of a horizon, ion flow and/or stellar/sun sensors, located at the middle bottom of the service module, as on the Soyuz spacecraft.

Solar panels with a total area of over 40 square metres, indicating average electrical power available is over 1.5 kW (three times that of Soyuz and greater than that of the original Mir base module).


Spacecraft: Project 921-3.

The first model of the planned 921-3 manned shuttle was exhibited at Hannover Expo 2000. This showed a double-delta winged spaceplane with a single vertical stabiliser, equipped with three high-expansion engines. Based on the size of the presumed two crew side-by-side cockpit, dimensions could be very roughly estimated as a wingspan of 8 m and a length of 12 m, and a total mass of 12 tonnes (within the payload capability of the Chinese CZ-2E(A) or Type A launch vehicles).


Spacecraft: Chinese Lunar Base.

Beyond the initial Project 921 programmes for development of a manned earth orbit capability, Chinese scientists began talking during the course of 2000 of more ambitious plans for a lunar base. At Expo 2000 at Hannover the centre piece of the Chinese pavilion was a display of two Chinese astronauts planting the flag of the People’s Republic on the lunar surface. On October 4, 2000 Associated Press reported that Zhuang Fenggan, vice chairman of the China Association of Sciences, declared that one day the Chinese would create a permanent lunar base with the intent of mining the lunar soil for Helium-3 (to fuel nuclear fusion plants on Earth). On October 13, 2000, Xinhua News Agency reported a more definite timetable. These seemed to be the dreams of academics rather than a definite funded programme, but at least indicated the expected course of development during the 21st (‘Chinese’) Century:

  • Chinese astronauts would begin landings on the moon in 2005. An initial lunar station would be built up with pressurised modules, electrical generators, and roving vehicles.
  • The station would be completed by 2010, allowing stays of several weeks for extended science experiments.
  • Beginning in 2015, construction of a small permanent Moon base would begin. The objective would be for a self-sufficient lunar base to be in operation by 2020. This would be a bridgehead for construction of a network of solar power generating plants. The power would be transmitted back to Earth via microwave to meet Chinese power needs without adding to earth greenhouse gases. The base would also process the lunar regolith for metals and gases needed to support the base. The natural high vacuum would be used for research and production of new materials for export to Earth.


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Last update 28 March 2001.
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