Monday, October 12, 2009
China Shows U.S. Delegation Next Spacecraft, TianGong
The U.S. and China are beginning to open lines of communications that could lead to greater cooperation in human spaceflight. This significant move comes as the Obama administration ponders a way forward in space that may include more willingness to work with China in areas that previously were off limits.
The two space-faring nations have a lot to offer each other. The U.S. program is in a budget-induced crisis, without the cash it needs to continue on its current path to build a pair of rockets to take astronauts back to the Moon and beyond. China’s space endeavors appear to have plenty of money, but they lack the technology and experience needed to catch up quickly on their own.
The new administration in Washington seems willing to play a more collegial role in the world, and the leadership cadre in China seems willing to play along. Hindering that is a legacy of mistrust that may have eased just a little last week, at least in the area of human spaceflight cooperation.
As a former deputy NASA administrator and the head of China’s Manned Space Engineering Office held back-channel talks, human spaceflight officials here offered an unprecedented opportunity to examine the Tiangong-1 docking target and the next in its series of Shenzhou human spacecraft, as well as previously off-limits space facilities.
And five of the six Chinese astronauts who have flown in space quizzed two former space shuttle commanders about aspects of their common profession, ranging from rendezvous and docking techniques to the best way to manage astronaut schedules.
“Because of a lack of contact in previous times, we haven’t decided how to cooperate,” replied Wang Wenbao, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, when asked if China would be willing to join the International Space Station partnership (ISS). “If we can open a channel so we can all sit together, then we can decide what we can do and what America can do.”
“The important thing to know is that we had a meeting,” says Fred Gregory, a three-time shuttle astronaut and deputy NASA administrator from 2002-05.
Gregory and Tom Henricks, a veteran of four shuttle missions who is president of Aviation Week, spent several hours briefing Chinese astronauts, engineers and space-medicine experts about their spaceflight experiences during a visit to Beijing Space City arranged by the Space Foundation, a private U.S. group. Among those participating were Yang Liwei, China’s first astronaut; Zhai Zhigang, its first spacewalker; and three other Shenzhou spaceflight veterans.
Between them, Gregory and Henricks have been in space more than six times longer than all of their Chinese counterparts combined, and some of the scripted questions from the Chinese were quite basic. They included queries about what NASA would do if a crewmember became severely ill in space, and how astronauts recognize and handle space-adaptation syndrome, or space sickness. Others dealt with personnel issues, such as whether NASA astronauts are allowed to lend their names to advertising after they retire.
The questioning marked a stark contrast with the first encounters between NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts as their two human-spaceflight programs began to work together in the early 1990s. At that time, the Russian program had deep experience in human operations in space, but was strapped for cash.
During a tour of space facilities here on Sept. 22, the lack of experience in the Chinese program was offset by an apparent abundance of funding. Facilities at the compound in the northwestern suburbs of Beijing are gleaming, relatively new and elaborate. The Space Foundation delegation visited three of them: the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), the China Astronaut Research and Training Center and the Beijing Aerospace Control Center (BACC).
In contrast to another U.S. visit last year, when Chinese authorities restricted a group organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies to a museum just inside the Beijing Space City gate (AW&ST May 5, 2008, p. 29), the Space Foundation group received a friendly official welcome at the astronaut training center and BACC inside the compound, and at the CAST facility in another compound nearby.
At CAST, photography was forbidden. But the U.S. visitors were given white smocks, caps and booties, and allowed into the class-100,000 clean-room high bay where the Shenzhou 8 orbital module and reentry capsule are being assembled alongside the Tiangong 1 orbital target and the Chang'e 2 robotic lunar orbiter.
Shenzhou 8 is identical to Shenzhou 7, which carried Zhai and two crewmates on the three-day spacewalk mission in September 2008, except that it has a small docking unit on its forward end and video cameras mounted around its circumference to guide final approach. The mechanical docking ring is not compatible with the Russian androgynous peripheral assembly system used on the ISS, officials say.
A combination of radar and laser ranging will guide the approaching Shenzhou to Tiangong 1 for China’s first exercise in proximity operations and docking. The 8.5-metric-ton target vehicle’s hull appears complete, with its docking ring in place at one end. But the propulsion/ service module at the other end is partially disassembled, with what appeared to be a large avionics bay pulled out and rotated 90 deg., connected to the rest of the spacecraft only by cables.
Set for launch in October 2010, Chang'e 2 is an external copy of its predecessor, which impacted the Moon on Mar. 1 at the end of what officials here say was a successful mission. Improvements include a better camera with a resolution of 5 meters (16.4 ft.) at the surface, they say.
Also on display at CAST were a large anechoic chamber outfitted by EADS Astrium known as the Compensated Compact Range, and a thermal vacuum chamber used for Shenzhou and spacesuit testing that has an internal diameter of 12 meters, and an internal height of 24 meters.
At the astronaut training center, Yang and Zhou guided visitors through a large simulator suite, where a full-scale Shenzhou mockup is mounted vertically next to the computer gear that generates its audiovisual input, and a reentry capsule simulator is mounted horizontally. They showed us a 10-meter-deep neutral-buoyancy lab built in 2007, with a Shenzhou airlock/orbital module underwater mockup displayed nearby. In a separate room, a harness-and-cable arrangement is used to train astronauts in a higher-fidelity airlock under simulated microgravity.
At BACC, Ma Yongping, the deputy director, briefed the U.S. visitors on the center’s operations. Later, Wang, the human spaceflight engineering director, and Zhou Jianping, the University of Southern California-educated chief designer of the China Manned Space Engineering Program, hosted a discussion and an elaborate banquet at a restaurant.
Also on the agenda for later in the week was a visit to the Jiquan Satellite Launch Center, where all of the Shenzhou missions originated. Foreigners are allowed to visit the site only rarely, according to Yang.
Gregory’s conversation with Yang, whose office manages human spaceflight for the central government and draws its funding through the military, marks a change for NASA. In the past, the U.S. agency has discussed space cooperation with the civilian China National Space Administration. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, also a former shuttle astronaut, plans a visit here before the end of the year to discuss space topics. President Barack Obama, who accepted an invitation from President Hu Jintao during the London G20 summit in April, is also scheduled to visit this year.