China’s spaceflight technology gives astronauts a cozier home

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After a decade of preparation, Tang Hongbo’s space dream finally came true. On June 17, the 45-year-old astronaut was sent into space aboard the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft. Unlike his two fellow travelers, veteran astronauts Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming, this was Tang’s maiden space journey. Now, about a week after the launch, the crewmembers have established their daily routine inside China’s space station. They will stay in orbit for three months. “I am very proud to be selected for the Shenzhou-12 mission,” Tang said at a press conference before the mission. “I believe we will work together to turn the space station into a home in space.”

New tasks

The space flight is China’s seventh manned mission to space and the first during the construction of China’s space station. China’s manned space program has now entered a new phase. The program started in 1992 with a three-stage strategy. The goal of the first stage was to send an astronaut into space, which was achieved in 2003. The second stage involved sending manned spaceships up to space labs where astronauts could live temporarily and conduct experiments. The goal of the third stage is to build a permanent space station. So far, China has sent about a dozen astronauts into space on seven manned spacecraft, launched two Tianzhou cargo spacecraft, and put Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 space labs into orbit.

The first two stages of its manned space program have been completed, with the last manned mission in the second stage taking place nearly five years ago. The third stage was ushered in with a flurry of activity, as the space station’s core module Tianhe launched on April 29 and cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-2 took off on May 29. More manned and unmanned space flights to the space station have been scheduled for 2021-22.

The Shenzhou-12 mission differs from previous ones. During this mission, the astronauts are expected to spend longer periods outside the cabin with many rounds of extravehicular activities. It is also the first time that they will cooperate with an external robotic arm on the space station core module. The intelligent robotic arm will help the astronauts finish several tasks, such as executing extravehicular activities and operations, carrying cargo and checking the status of the capsule.

“The complexity and arduousness of these tasks will exceed the imagination,” Nie told the People’s Daily.

Before the mission, astronauts increased the intensity of their training to be better prepared. One of the most difficult aspects of training was conducted underwater, which simulated the weightless environment in space. The astronauts needed to remain underwater wearing spacesuits for six hours at a time in order to master their movements.

“At first I would get upset after being in a narrow and small underwater space for that long,” Tang said. “But gradually I got better. Now I feel very comfortable in the extravehicular spacesuit, even after working for several hours.” Despite the meticulous preparation prior to the mission, Liu said the ground training cannot fully prepare astronauts for performing missions in space. Given that unexpected situations may occur, the mission staff, including scientists, engineers and astronauts, have many backup plans. When astronauts encounter problems, the ground team can provide assistance and offer technical support at any time.

“I look forward to the moment when I stand at the end of the robotic arm, facing the entire vast universe,” Liu said. The 54-year-old first explored space during the Shenzhou-7 mission in 2008, and helped his teammate Zhai Zhigang perform a landmark 20-minute spacewalk.

Life in space

For Nie, 56, this is his third space mission. After the Shenzhou-12 mission, Nie is expected to set the record for the longest stay in space by a Chinese astronaut. Nie now enjoys better living conditions in space than before.

Conditions for Chinese astronauts have become better and better. During the Shenzhou-5 mission in 2003, astronaut Yang Liwei was not able to move about in the orbital module as it was too small. By the time of the Shenzhou-10 mission, 10 years later, the Tiangong-1 space lab was the size of a one-bedroom apartment while the current space station core module has three bedrooms plus a bathroom.

“When Fei Junlong and I performed the Shenzhou-6 mission [in 2005], the temperature in the orbital cabin was relatively low, and we couldn’t really heat up meals and we repeated our menu every three days. Now we have a seven-day menu, which allows us to eat a richer diet,” Nie said.

Over 120 varieties of food have been brought on board to guarantee that the astronauts eat healthily, including kung pao chicken and shredded pork in garlic sauce, two popular dishes in Sichuan cuisine; assorted other meat and vegetable dishes; as well as snacks, desserts and fruits. Tea and juice are also supplied and there is a microwave oven.

Before the astronauts’ arrival, supplies had been delivered to the core module by cargo freighter Tianzhou-2. The supplies, equipment and propellant it carried weighed about seven tons.

With these supplies, astronauts can live a decent life in space. In late June, a video they recorded in Tianhe went viral online, showing them working and eating in space. “I was curious and also a bit worried about how our national heroes had been doing in the vastness of space. After watching their video I know they are doing great! I’m very proud of them,” Wu Zichen, a college student in Beijing, told Beijing Review.

The physical health of the astronauts is also taken into consideration. The core module is equipped with space treadmills, space bicycles and other equipment to meet the daily exercise needs of astronauts.

Also, each astronaut is given a hand-held terminal for adjusting the in-cabin lighting to various modes of activities such as sleeping, working and exercising to avoid the discomfort caused by being in a monotonous environment for too long.

In addition to smart home applications, wireless communication enables astronauts to communicate with the ground. “That is to say, they can browse websites just as we can on the ground, and make phone calls to Earth,” said Bai Linhou, deputy chief designer of the core module.

Tang, father of a middle-school student, has brought family videos with him to watch while resting. Moreover, with sophisticated communication facilities, the astronauts are able to conduct video calls with family members.

The astronauts enjoy their new home. They expressed their wish to share it with other astronauts, including foreign counterparts.

“I hope to meet astronauts from other countries in the space station in the near future,” Tang said.

China hopes to enhance the depth and breadth of international cooperation in terms of space science and application. Ji Qiming, Assistant to the Director of the China Manned Space Agency, said at a press conference held ahead of the Shenzhou-12 launch. He said that China will expand international cooperation through its space station, including carrying out joint scientific projects and joint flights with foreign astronauts.

Beijing Review

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