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Fly Me To A Red Moon

It will cost trillions of yuan to make the moon any more Red!
by Morris Jones
Melbourne, Australia (SPX) Mar 28, 2006
The revisions to China's human spaceflight program in 2006 have been astonishing. China has completely revised its timetable and specific mission objectives for the next four launches in the Shenzhou program. But do the changes in the Shenzhou program run deeper than dates and technicalities?

It's possible that technical and economic factors have caused China to adopt a different approach to developing the first Chinese space station. But has China decided to drop space stations as the principal goal beyond Shenzhou 7, which will carry out China's first spacewalk in 2008?

It's possible.

Chinese statements are so vague that they are open to various interpretations. One possible interpretation is that the missions planned after Shenzhou 7 represent a new direction for China's short-term plans. China could be planning to send astronauts to the moon much sooner than the international community may think.

Landing astronauts on the moon is tricky. Your correspondent does not believe that Chinese astronauts will leave their footprints there before 2017, and probably much later than that.

But a manned circumlunar mission, or a lunar orbital mission, can be accomplished with much less hardware, complications and expense than a landing. Circumlunar missions are so achievable that Space Adventures, the well-known space tourism firm, has presented a realistic circumlunar mission profile for paying passengers.

Admittedly, the $100 million pricetag is expensive, even by space tourism standards, but a nation with the aerospace resources and gross domestic product of China could realistically aim for its own circumlunar mission in the very near future.

I do not believe that the orbital complex to be formed from the Shenzhou 8, 9 and 10 missions will suddenly depart for the moon. But I suspect that certain hardware and procedures for a lunar mission will be evaluated in this mission sequence.

The ongoing saga of maintaining and constructing the International Space Station has been harrowing to any space observer. Grand plans for an enormous, sophisticated orbiting laboratory have failed to reach fruition.

The USA, which instigated the project, seems to be losing interest and planning a withdrawal. NASA's next target will be to return astronauts to the moon. Is it possible that China has decided to follow suit with its own planning?

When the Shenzhou program began, China was content to step into orbit at a fairly leisurely pace. They perceived that they were not in a race with the USA, which had been orbiting astronauts for decades. But NASA is experiencing problems with its funding and internal management that are too numerous to document in this article.

America's space agency is clearly ailing. Despite the fledgling status of its human spaceflight program, China may now feel that it can achieve parity with the West in a relatively short-term timeframe. If NASA continues its shocking slide downwards, they may well be right.

Reaching for the moon has always been the ultimate goal of human spaceflight, apart from sending astronauts to Mars, which is beyond the scope of any spacefaring nation at the present. Expressions of flying to the moon or reaching for our natural satellite are a part of our popular culture, including the well-known Bart Howard song. Lunar missions through the Apollo program were selected by President John F. Kennedy as a way of trumping early Soviet achievements in spaceflight.

Amazingly, the moon has not received any human visitors in more than 30 years, and no explorers from any former Soviet state have ever gone there. If China can send astronauts to the moon in the near future, it will deliver the most powerful propaganda coup that their space program can hope to achieve in its present state.

Some analysts have speculated that China may have been hoping to send a Shenzhou on a lunar mission with the use of a new heavy-lift Long March rocket, which had been proposed by the Chinese. Recent evidence suggests that this rocket will not be available in the short-term. But China can still send a Shenzhou to the moon with an Earth Orbit Rendezvous mission profile.

Under one possible mission plan, a Shenzhou would dock in Earth orbit with a separately launched rocket stage, or possibly more than one. These would serve as tugboats to send Shenzhou out of low Earth orbit, flying towards the moon.

Using a free-return trajectory, Shenzhou would pass around the far side of the moon as the moon's gravity hurled it back toward Earth. The individual elements could all be launched using China's existing fleet of Long March vehicles. Assembly of a lunar mission in orbit allows each element to be carried by relatively light rockets.

Alternatively, the addition of another rocket stage to the complex could allow Shenzhou to be placed in Lunar orbit, spend some time there, and then fly back home. The fuel expenditure and velocity changes required for an orbital mission are significantly higher than a free-return trajectory, but with enough fuel and stages, it could be achieved. The first such mission was carried out by the crew of Apollo 8 in December 1968.

A variant on both mission profiles could see an additional crew module added to Shenzhou, possibly an expanded version of the Shenzhou orbital module. This would give the crew more room, and allow them to carry more supplies and equipment.

China could effectively boast that their lunar mission was like a small lunar space station. High-resolution film cameras to photograph the lunar surface would be one obvious payload, along with biological samples. China could have its own "moon trees", similar to the ones grown from seeds carried on Apollo.

Space analysts have noted that the Shenzhou's cylindrical orbital module gives the spacecraft a strong resemblance to Soyuz A, an early draft design for Russia's Soyuz spacecraft that was never built. Sergei Korolyev also toyed with the idea of sending Soyuz A on a circumlunar mission.

His proposal involved launching an unmanned "tugboat" rocket stage into orbit, which would be visited by a flotilla of small tanker spacecraft launched progressively. Once the tugboat was fully fuelled, a manned Soyuz spacecraft would be launched to dock with it. The complex would then be sent on its way to the moon.

Has China decided to enact Korolyev's original plans? There's enough evidence to suspect so. In any case, Earth Orbit Rendezvous plans for reaching the moon have been repeatedly reinvented by various teams, and were also once considered for the Apollo program.

A Chinese EOR-based circumlunar mission could be instigated after the Shenzhou 8-9-10 complex finishes its mission, which is slated for 2010. Given the need for Chinese engineers to evaluate the performance of this ambitious set of missions, the earliest that a Chinese circumlunar mission could be launched is 2012.

China could elect to send an unmanned Shenzhou on a translunar mission first, just as the Soviet Union did with its Zond circumlunar program. A manned circumlunar mission is thus unlikely before 2014.

China has stated that it has plans for a small space station in the 2012 timeframe, but this could still be consistent with the lunar program. More testing of hardware that could serve in a lunar or Earth orbital program could be carried out. Alternatively, China may simply elect to amend its plans, as it has repeatedly done in the past, and head straight for the moon.

It's possible to make educated guesses about the timetable for Chinese plans to reach the moon, but such guesses are potentially unreliable. It's not even clear that China is trying to reach the moon, even though it is plausible on the basis of the slim media statements we have. But what of the USA, Russia, or private enterprise? Is it possible that China will reach the moon before NASA can return there?

The current state of US politics is extremely volatile, and nobody can predict where the nation as a whole, let alone NASA, is heading at the moment. A new president will be elected in 2008, and the USA will need to deal with prickly policy issues in not only the Middle East, but Asia. So any timetables published by NASA are as potentially uncertain as the plans of the Chinese.

It will be interesting to see what China is prepared to say next. It will be just as interesting if a long period eventuates with total silence on these subjects. We're watching closely, and awaiting the next steps.

Dr Morris Jones is a lecturer at Deakin University, Australia

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- The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
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Chinas Big Station Plan
Geelong. Australia (SPX) Mar 21, 2006
2006 has seen more changes and reshuffling to China's human spaceflight program than any other period that's publicly on record. We've seen the first spacewalk postponed, and we have also seen a proposal for a three-spacecraft complex that's effectively a small modular space station.

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