(And The Clock Has Started)
Yesterday evening at 6:00 p.m. Pacific Time, The People's Republic of China launched their first manned space mission, sending a Chinese "Taikonaut" on a 21 hour orbital flight
Launched from the Jiuquan Space Center on one of China's 2F "Long March" boosters, the Shenzhou 5 capsule is now about to re-enter the earth's atmosphere, and will parachute to a touchdown about 500 miles west of Beijing.
Obviously, the space shuttle program has launched dozens of astronauts from scores of foreign nations, but China now becomes only the third nation with independent manned space launch capability.
38 year-old Air Force Colonel Yang Liwei was selected from a dozen finalists to take the historic flight, joining Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn as the first representatives from their respective nations to orbit the earth in one-person vehicles.
The Shenzhou ("heavenly vessel") is an upgraded version of Russia's workhorse Soyuz capsule design with some interesting modifications:
The most intriguing of which is that the instrument package (the forward end of the stack) has its own set of solar panels providing the module with a separate power supply, which allows it to operate as an independent satellight once it is jettisoned from the crew/re-entry module. Basically, this gives the Chinese the ability to simultaneously launch manned missions with small payload packages that can remain in orbit after the mission is completed, something not even the Russians can do at this point.
Many experts have criticized this program, due to its obvious military implications, as well as for using essentially "old school" hardware. However, as anyone who knows even the smallest inkling about the Chinese mentality recognizes that if ever there was a nation that adhered to the adage that, "slow and steady wins the race", they're the ones to do it. And if their announced long-range goals for lunar landings and a possible manned lunar mission by 2010 are any indication, it's entirely possible today's launch could herald the beginning of a new "space race", whether either the U.S. or Russia chooses to participate or not.
on 11:59 AM