Sunday, 28 September 2008

China's Triple Space Success

From The Australian :
Mission commander Zhai Zhigang left the Shenzhou VII spacecraft at 4.43pm Beijing time (6.43pm AEST) to float in orbit for just under 15 minutes, making China the third country to complete a space walk after the United States and the former Soviet Union.
The space walk, broadcast live on television, was the highlight of the 68-hour voyage - China's third manned foray into space - and considered an important step towards building a space station, China's next major ambition in space.
Cdr Zhai waved a small Chinese flag shortly after climbing out of the spacecraft, 343km over the Earth.

Tethered to the craft with two safety wires, Cdr Zhai, 41, slowly moved towards a test sample of solid lubricant outside the module, Xinhua news agency said.

He took the sample and handed it to fellow astronaut Liu Boming, who stayed in the module and closely monitored Cdr Zhai's moves.

The move was a drill intended to replicate the type of task future space walkers will have to perform.

A fire alert heard during the live transmission of the space walk turned out to be a mistake in one of the sensors, Mr Wang said.

"To be frank, at that very moment, many of us felt a little bit concerned," he said.

But after finding out the alarm came from an area outside where Cdr Zhai was working, he said they relaxed.

As part of China's space program, two more unmanned craft will be launched by 2010, as well as another manned spaceship with a crew of three to start work on the lab or space station, according to the China Daily.

And from the ABC:
China's three astronauts have landed safely back on Earth after a challenging voyage, including a space walk, that showcased the country's technological mastery and put it one step closer to the Moon.

Spacewalker Zhai Zhigang and two other astronauts on board the Shenzhou VII landed around 5.40 pm (local time) on the steppes of northern Inner Mongolia region, where helicopters with crews trained in search and rescue were on stand-by.
It was China's third manned space mission. The ability to space walk is key to a longer-term goal of assembling a space lab and then a larger space station, and maybe one day making a landing on the moon.

The fast-growing Asian power wants to be sure of a say in the future use of space and its resources, and its space program has come a long way since late leader Mao Zedong lamented that China could not even launch a potato into space.
Now, some armchair analysis:

They were confident enough to broadcast the spacewalk live. And if you compare the pictures with what the US did in its first spacewalk with Gemini IV in 1965 - an event I remember - it was no umbilically-connected bespoke suit either. It was autonomous, just the thing you need in space construction. In 1965, the US had yet to put a 3-man crew into space. And needless to remind everyone, 4 years later they were on the Moon.

The Flag is a nice "Hurray For Us!" bit, but it also proves another thing. If one can manipulate a flag, one can manipulate a tool such as a spanner. It tests the gloves' freedom of movement. This was no mere "stunt", despite appearances. It was the first qualification test of gear they intend to use later.

Now if I were in charge of the Chinese space program... I'd be doing much the same. Some more uncrewed launches of the Shenzhou to work out the inevitable bugs. Development of a robotic moon lander, and an overpowered "kicker" to get it into Lunar orbit. Perhaps a permanent constellation of lunar satellites for communications and survey. More work on a space station and assembly point in LEO - Low Earth Orbit.

I wouldn't try developing a Saturn-V class behemoth to launch everything at once. Instead I'd have 3 launches: one for the lander, one for the "kicker", and one for the "people locker", the Shenzhou capsule. Stuff put in orbit does degrade due to exposure to vacuum, and lubricants in particular need a lot of work. But a few months in orbital storage should be safe, and if anything goes wrong, a backup can be flown instead. A single launch failure does not mean a complete mission scrub.

Assemble the stack, kicker, lander, and capsule in orbit. Do an integration test, a lunar orbit and return with the lot, possibly uncrewed at first. Then a landing.

But with such a modular system, with spares, no need to stop there. The same system can be used to land habitats, supplies, and a permanent base established using existing, proven, reliable hardware. And it's a lot cheaper and easier to build than honking great boosters. Just the kind of thing you want when you're the only team in the competition, and you can take your time and do things right. When you're not into space spectaculars, but colonisation in the long term. And that is not small potatoes.


Anonymous said...
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Frederick Paul Kiesche III said...

Weeeeeellll...some other armchair analysis.

Did we have a hand-held camera for Gemini IV? They did release pictures as fast as possible, upon landing. And later flights did include a camera. As did the Apollo flights. Heck, they had television shots from Apollo 13, **after** the explosion.

A fifteen minute spacewalk...they're going to have to build up experience. As was shown in later Gemini flights, it isn't as easy as some think. And to build a space station with assembly? Get that underwater tank cranking and still expect to modify on the spot and change your plans.

And is it me, or was this flight kind of short? I wonder if something went on that we didn't know about.

Anonymous said...

Also, there is the private market too:

Zoe Brain said...

anon - Falcon's my next space post. Thanks for the link I'll incorporate it.

Fred - agree completely. This was a proof of concept, and the Fire alarm probably caused them to end the mission early.

I'd be very interested in the extent of their training and development program. Validating pool experiences with actual vacuum work, and refining before going into "series production".

Most of the hard work will be behind the scenes, with only the odd verification test that result in spectaculars.

Probably a lot of uncrewed Shenzhous too, more debugging.

Zoe Brain said...

Just as an expansion - the Long March III has about 1/10 the throw-weight of a Saturn V. So more than 3 missions may be needed.