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Project 921 Shenzhou
China and Piloted Space Programs

China's first experimental spacecraft "Shenzhou" (meaning "Magic Vessel" or "God Ship" in Chinese), completed a 21-hour space voyage on 21 November 1999. Launched atop a new model Long March 2F booster, the unmanned spacecraft consists of propulsion, return and orbit modules.

Since the late 1970's the PRC has seriously planned for the eventual flight of Chinese astronauts, but by the early 1990s shifting program priorities had resulted in only preliminary work in the areas of spacecraft design and space medicine. Small teams of Chinese had undergone some astronaut training, and designs for manned spacecraft ranging from simple capsules to space shuttles to space stations had all been drawn up. The 1984 prospect of a Chinese astronaut flying on the US Space Shuttle never materialized (Reference 65).

A 1978 decision to embark on a Chinese manned space program was short-lived, although astronaut training and space suit design were initiated (References 66-70). By the mid-1980's PRC began to talk about building a manned Chinese space station in apparent competition with the US and the USSR programs (References 71-76). Although discussions of sophisticated space shuttles were offered, the near-term goal appeared to be a Gemini-class capsule launched by an expendable booster with a crew of 2-4 astronauts. In 1994 the PRC held discussions with Russian aerospace officials for the purpose of acquiring Soyuz technology to be adapted to a Chinese recoverable capsule for launch by a CZ-2E booster, perhaps as early as the year 2002. The launch site may be a new facility reported in 1992 to be under construction 200 km from Jiuquan (References 77-82).

In early 1999 the first piloted Chinese spaceflight was widely anticipated to be attempted in October 1999, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People"s Republic. On 18 March 1998 Ma Xingrui, vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST) stated (Reference 159)that:
"China is striving to make breakthroughs in manned space flight technology at the end of this century or the beginning of the next century, and will launch small lunar explorer when possible,"

Two Chinese astronauts, Wu Jie and Li Qinglong [also transliterated as Wu Tse and Li Tsinlung], participated in a two-year training program at the Russian Yuri Gagarin Center beginning in November 1996. And work on a recoverable 20-ton spacecraft at the Shanghai Academy of Space Technology is said to be nearing completion (Reference 160). Work under the code name "Project 921" was reported to envision two unmanned test flights in for 1998. As with the Russian the Soyuz the Chinese spacecraft will include a reentry capsule and an orbital life module, but unlike Soyuz it does not include an approach and docking system (Reference 161).

In August 1999 Wang Xingqing, general designer with the Chinese Academy of Launch-Vehicle Technology, stated that that first Chinese human space flight would take place around 2005. In June 1999 images purporting to be those of a version of China's Long March booster capable of launching a piloted spacecraft were made public. While some "enhancement" may have taken place, there was evidently some basis in truth of these images of the Long March 2F.

The PRC has also expressed interest in joining the International Space Station, although such cooperation is unlikely before the facility reaches its initial full operational capability in 2002 (References 83-84). Plans for a Sanger class, two-stage manned space shuttle were under consideration in the early 1980's, but the demanding program does not appear to have a high priority (Reference 85).


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