Saturday, 22 December 2012

Astronyms, part 6: Chinese Condoms and Stations

This is part of this series of posts on the history of spacecraft naming.

(Space condom. In space service 15 October 2003 to present)
Shenzhou 5 and Shenzhou 7

The Chinese space program has had an interesting history, far less panicked and rushed than the USA-USSR space race, but still difficult to assess as a true example of slow and steady progress, because they've borrowed so much from the Soviets/Russians. Shenzhou is a prime example: It really is just a Soyuz variant, somewhat enlarged, but not so much you'd easily notice it without measuring equipment - unless you're sitting inside, and then the extra elbow room is really clearly obvious. The most interesting change has probably been to the orbital module (OM), the 'front bit'. Initially, China decided it wanted to make the OM work as a stand-alone unit after ejecting from the rest of the vessel, as some sort of free bonus satellite. So, the first 6 Shenzhous all had double pairs of solar panels: The usual aft pair inherited from the Soyuz design, and a smaller forward pair attached to the OM. Shenzhou 7 and onwards flew without the OM panels, making them look much more like the Soyuz again. However, the Shenzhou OM still seems to be unusually modular, and no two launched so far have looked quite the same (see images at right).

Chinese naming policy seems pretty straightforward so far, basically similar to the pre-Apollo American system. The crew capsule has a class name and a sequential launch number, and this is also the mission code. The crew seem to have no special designations that I can find. The rocket also has a type name (so far, it's always been Chang Zheng 2F rockets), which is different to the capsule name (unlike the usual Soviet/Russian Vostok-on-Vostok, Soyuz-on-Soyuz naming convention). The Chang Zheng rocket family does originally derive from a Soviet design (and ultimately from the German V-2, as so many large modern rocket families do), but has been gestating separately within China for decades and is now quite a different beast to anything the Russians use. The 2F variant was optimised for crewed flights, but is significantly less powerful than the Soyuz rocket, suggesting the Soyuz might actually be wastefully overpowered [EDIT: Must have read something wrong, that's not true].

Chang Zheng translates as 'long march', and most English texts will normally talk about Long March rockets. But I like consistency and I like getting as close to the original name as my untrained tongue will allow, so it doesn't make sense to say Soyuz and Vostok for the Russian stuff, but Long March for the Chinese, and neither would I like to have to write Union and East in English. Even weirder, most articles mix things up just within the Chinese names, writing Shenzhou in Chinese and Long March in English. Consistency, please.

Anyway, the reason I translate Chang Zheng first is that it illustrates a change in Chinese naming policy; initially, the Chinese government was determined to keep all names secular and nationalistic, sort of like the Soviets were doing. But then at some point, in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, there was an urge to use terms from Chinese mythology, much as the Americans (and later the Europeans) had been using Greek and Roman mythological names. So while Chang Zheng drew on the specifically pro-Mao recent history tied up with the Long March of 1934-35, Shenzhou translates as 'divine vessel' (or, more amusingly, 'magic boat'), which is a literal enough name, except that it's very sneakily also a homophone for an older name for China. So it gets to be both mythical and nationalist at the same time. Pretty sneaky, and a bit of a jab at the "young" Americans and Russians.

Of the 9 11 Shenzhous launched so far, 4 6 of them (Shenzhous 5, 6, 7, 9, 10 and 11) have been crewed, each making one successful flight each.

 (Space station. In space service 18 June 2012 to 16 November 2016)
Tiangong 1, docked with Shenzhou 9, with EVA chorus line adjacent

China wanted to get in on the ISS. The US wouldn't let them, because they didn't want to spoil their long-running spy-vs.-spy contest. So China built their own damn station, Tiangong 1, roughly in the format of the old Salyuts, but also enlarged [EDIT: shrunk a little]. The idea, as I understand it, is to follow a similar path to the one the Soviets followed, with some disposable, stand-alone mini-stations (Salyuts for the Soviets, Tiangongs for the Chinese) eventually leading up to a big, modular, long-term station (Mir for the Soviets, unnamed future thing for the Chinese). After an uncrewed test mission using Shenzhou 8Tiangong 1 was occupied during Shenzhou 9's visit, and should be then visited once more by Shenzhou 10 in mid-2013. Then Tiangong 2 and 3 (slightly larger, I believe) are due to launch next, with the one major difference of having both fore and aft docking ports (Tiangong 1 only had the forward port), allowing for resupply ships to dock while there's already a crew there. There seems to be a little confusion about whether Tiangong 3 will be another stand-alone test station, or whether it will be incorporated into the large modular Mir/ISS-style station China has planned.

[EDIT: Tiangong 2 launched in September 2016 and was boarded by the crew of Shenzhou 11 in October 2016, with a plan to keep them there for a full month.] [Shenzhou 11 departed on schedule, leaving Tiangong 2 vacant but operational. The station will continue to run a number of experiments by remote, but is not expected to be crewed again. For my purposes here, its crewed service life is ended.]

The name translates as 'heavenly palace', which again is nice and literal, while still retaining a charming air of mythos. I do also like the idea of naming stations after supposedly fixed, immoveable entities. Where are our Olympus station, Uluru station, Atlantis station, Babylon stations 1-5?

The onlyfirst Tiangong so far is currently in orbit, unoccupied, and it's no longer clear how long it'll stay there is expected to re-enter the atmosphere sometime vaguely soon.