Director Yang Liwei: China is Pacing Up in Its Space Timetable

According to the report from the Journal of News of Voice of China on June 25, Yang Liwei, a major general and special-rank astronaut, was born in 1965 in Suizhong County, Huludao City, Liaoning Province. He is currently the Director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO). He is one of the first generation of astronauts trained in China. Yang Liwei entered into space in the Shenzhou-5 spacecraft on October 15, 2003. He has become China’s first “space messenger”, and has fulfilled the flight dream for the Chinese nation.

The 9:00 a.m. on October 15, 2003 is a moment that Yang Liwei will never forget, and also a moment signifying China’s entry into space. Yang said that every minute and every second in the 21 hours and 23 minutes after that moment is fresh and new. “From my personal point of view, there may be nothing that could surpass it. There are certainly many unknown things and many thrilling experience during the first flight. No one has ever told me what might happen at a certain place.”

In spite of thousands of ground training, there are still many situations in space that cannot be simulated on earth. Although numerous information has been consulted and hundreds of plans have been prepared, problems in real flight still cannot be anticipated. Flying into space in Shenzhou 5, in Yang Liwei’s view, is a mission to accumulate experience for following tasks, and the most valuable part in it is to fully expose some problems.

Yang Liwei said that there are many kinds of situations happening simultaneously in the flight, or some situations that cannot be achieved on earth. Some abnormal situations need to be improved at the same time. Exposure of problems and the work of improvement in the first flight are experience we must go through in the space engineering step by step.

In the early 1970s, China had formulated the “Dawning” plan for the manned spaceflight, but it was put on hold due to poor economic and technical conditions. In the 1980s, the rapid development of science and technology had triggered profound changes in the world’s economy, politics, and military. In order to win the first chance in international competition, many countries had listed the development of high technology as an important part of their development strategies. In 1986, the State Council of China approved the National High-tech Research and Development Program, in which space technology was included. In 1992, the manned space project was established. In 2003, with the lift-off of Shenzhou 5, China has become the third country in the world that has independently mastered the manned space technology.

Yang Liwei said, “with the flight of Shenzhou 5 and Shenzhou 6 into space, China has mastered the space-Earth transportation technology; when it comes to Shenzhou 7, China has mastered the spacewalk technology. Then it is the technology of rendezvous and docking, which is quite mature after experiencing the stage from the unmanned Shenzhou 8, to the verification of the manned Shenzhou 9, and to the verification of the flight of Shenzhou 10 in application.”

Over the past ten years from Shenzhou 5 to Shenzhou 11, 11 astronauts in China have entered into space to experience its vastness. Yang Liwei still remembers that when he went into space in Shenzhou 5, he could only eat such ready-to-eat food as moon cakes, but Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong had more than 100 kinds of food to choose on Shenzhou 11. “Take a vivid metaphor for example. (Previously) we might have been sitting on a tractor lifting off into space, and now we take a car instead. When I was flying, the coverage rate of telemetry, tracking, and command was 15%, which means that during a circle of the flight, I was able to talk to the ground only 15% of the time. But the current coverage rate is required to be at least 85%. In terms of video and image technology, as there are many satellite in service, now you can watch news broadcasting in the spacecraft, send text messages, go online, bring your phone with you to talk with the ground at any time.”

Yang Liwei’s observational experience in space is only a beginning, a beginning of a process from the initial discovery of problems to the preparations for a foundation for the construction of the space station. China is pacing up its space timetable, and its manned spaceflight project has welcomed the Space Station Era.

According to Yang Liwei, China is planning to launch the core module in 2020. By the year of 2021 and 2022, there will have been three to four manned flights and several cargo spacecraft flights. Experimental module-I and experimental module-II will be launched in 2021 and 2022, which will be assembled into the basic framework of the space station. And a large optical module will be launched later to operate with the basic framework in the same orbit. Yang Liwei is now more focused on the selection, training and management of astronauts. In the past, astronauts were usually selected from air force pilots on active service, but now the selection has been expanded to cover flight engineers and load experts. There will be more launch missions in the future, and the training and cultivation of astronauts will be more scientific.

Yang Liwei said: “At the very beginning when I was in flight service, there was only one launch mission in two or three years. But there will be more launch missions in the future, five to six times a year during the peaking moment, and there will be an increasing demand for astronauts. It is to work up there, not to pursue any breakthrough nor to experience.”

Exploring the unknown world is the eternal driving force for the progress of human civilization, and the manned spaceflight project is a comprehensive exploration in which multi-disciplinary high technologies are integrated. CT and nuclear magnetic resonance were first used in the field of aerospace. Whether it is medical experiment or crop cultivation, the ultimate purpose of exploration in space is to find a better way to serve mankind. Space technology will also be used in many sectors in the development of economy and society. In this sense, Yang Liwei believes that the astronauts are not just doing a job, but to execute missions of the state.

Yang Liwei said: “Deng Qingming has been on training for 20 years. He is the only astronaut of the first generation in China who is still in service but has not yet taken a flight mission. He said in an interview some time ago that it is not that he is not working hard, it’s because this group is too excellent. To some degree, this has reflected the pressure of training on everyone. It is very cruel. It requires very specific details in the training. Success is something in need of a fraction of failure. Many achievements are obtained on the verge of failure.”

In the report of the 19th CPC National Congress, building China into a strong nation through the development of aerospace has been set as one of the important goals for China to develop into a modern and strong country in the new era. General Secretary Xi Jinping has emphasized that the space is vast and the exploration is endless. Only through continuous innovation can the Chinese nation heads toward a brighter future. Yang Liwei said that currently China is accelerating the development of its aerospace industry, in order to achieve the global advanced level. “In terms of the manned space flight, China is the third country after the United States and Russia who have independently mastered the basic technology of manned spaceflight. We are called a huge space nation, which is still some distance behind the countries developed in space. Space capability is the key for countries to be developed in space. Whether it is BeiDou or Chang’e, it is developed to enhance a country’s space capability. Only when the space capability of a nation is sufficient enough to support its development as a big country or a strong country can such as a country be called a nation developed in space.”