Space: December 7, 1999


Two Russian Proton heavy space launch boosters failed this year, one in July and the other in October. It has been determined that the same problem caused each failure, the second-stage engines did not function properly. It has also been determined that the two failed second-stage engines were part of a batch of nine engines built by the Voronezh plant in 1993, after it had been shut down for several months due to financial problems. The seven remaining second stages from that batch must now be rebuilt before they can be used. This has backed up the entire Russian heavy space launch program, and that could include the critical Service Module for the International Space Station, which has been delayed repeatedly by Russian financial problems. This puts the Russians into a major bind. Do they use the few trustworthy second-stages they have for their own military launches (to replace critical warning satellites), to generate cash with international space launch services, or to meet their commitments to the International Space Station? --Stephen V Cole

More details are becoming available on China's 20 Nov launch of an empty space capsule designed to carry humans into space. The spacecraft itself weighed 7,200kg (16,000 pounds) and came in three parts. The main Orbital Module was based on the Russian Soyuz design but was more cylindrical, indicating that it was made in China rather than bought as a complete unit. The Descent Module is virtually identical to Soyuz; it landed in the Gobi Desert under a huge single parachute and a small braking rocket. The crew rides in the Descent Module during launch and landing; the Orbital Module provides extra space when actually in orbit. The Services Module contains extra fuel, oxygen, and other systems and equipment (such as the main engine) and appears to have been very similar to the original Soyuz design on the outside. (The Chinese report that this element included many new sub-systems designed and built in China.) The original Soyuz design (and the Chinese Shenzhou) has large solar panels on the Services Module, but the Chinese have added new solar panels to the Orbital Module to provide more electrical power. The Shenzhou is designed to carry a crew of two or three; several Chinese Taikonauts are in training for a first manned flight that could come next year, or five years from now. (Taik is the Chinese word for outer space.) The Shenzhou capsule is crude by US standards, and while different from Soyuz does not appear to be an advance in technology. Even so, the first Chinese space effort is considerably advanced over the initial US and Russian flights. Shenzhou is on a technological par with Gemini, which the US did not send into space until four years after its first flight, and the Russians took six years to move from the original Vostok spacecraft to the Soyuz design. The Chinese space program has many goals. Certainly, the "feel good" and prestige factors cannot be discounted, nor can the idea of using manned space platforms for military support and reconnaissance work (something Chinese military newspapers have heralded). The Chinese want to be seen on par with the US, Russia, and EU, not as a potential future member of the highest level of world powers. They also hope that actually running a space program will produce technological spin-offs as it did for the US and Russia in the 60s. --Stephen V Cole 


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