Reports:  China’s Next Shenzhou Spacecraft Takes Shape
An artist's illustration of Chinese astronauts spacewalking outside their Shenzhou spacecraft. Future Shenzhou missions will feature spacewalks ahead of orbital rendezvous and docking demonstrations.
Credit: China National Space Administration

China's next Shenzhou spacecraft to launch astronauts into orbit is under construction as officials draw up plans for the 2008 space shot, the country’s state-run media reported Friday.

The country's next crewed spaceflight, Shenzhou 7, is slated to launch three astronauts spaceward and include at least one spacewalk as China moves forward with plans to build an orbital space station.

“All the equipment of the separate systems has been delivered to China’s space aviation center for assembly,” Qi Faren, chief designer of China’s first five Shenzhou spacecraft, was quoted as saying by the Xinhua News Agency.

Qi spoke at China’s Sixth China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition held this week at the southern city of Zhuhai in the Guangdong province.  

Yang Liwei, China’s first astronaut, also spoke at the air show, where he announced that he and the Shenzhou 6 spaceflyers—Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng—are in the running to fly the Shenzhou 7 mission, state media reported.

“Currently, we three—Fei, Nie and I—and some other astronauts are being trained for the third space mission,” Yang was quoted as saying by Xinhua.

Yang made history when he orbited the Earth 14 times in 21 ½ hours during China’s Shenzhou 5 mission in 2003 as part of the country’s first crewed spaceflight. Fei and Nie launched aboard Shenzhou 6 for a five-day mission in October 2005, marking China’s first two-astronaut crew.

China’s Shenzhou 7 mission is expected to launch three astronauts into orbit and to feature the nation’s first spacewalk, which may in include one or two spaceflyers and run about 30 minutes in length, according to past reports.

According to the Shanghai Daily newspaper, the Shenzhou 7 spacecraft will feature a “pressure cabin” so that spacewalkers can adjust to weightlessness before their planned spacewalk. Chinese spacewalkers will don $20 million spacesuits, which weigh about 220 pounds (100 kilograms) on Earth, and are different from those used during the Shenzhou 5 and 6 spaceflights, the Shanghai Daily reported.

Yang reportedly said that Shenzhou 7 spacewalkers will perform a series of tasks outside their spacecraft, including tightening screws and installing equipment, according to a Xinhua report.

China is only the third nation, after the former Soviet Union and the U.S. [video], to independently launch astronauts into space.

The country’s Shenzhou (Divine Vessel) spaceships [image] are based on Russia’s three-segment Soyuz vehicles, but have been extensively modernized and modified by Chinese spacecraft designers.

One major difference is the Shenzhou’s ability to leave its solar array-equipped orbital module in space for months at a time. Such modules could serve as a docking target for future spacecraft, or as the foundation of a small space station, space experts have said.

“China will build a space laboratory after the Shenzhou 7 spacecraft is successfully launched, and eventually build its own space station to resolve the problems related to large-scale space-based scientific experiments and technological applications,” Yang was quoted as saying by Xinhua in a separate report.

Shenzhou 8 is expected to mark China’s first orbital docking between two spacecraft, a vital step forward for any planned space station.

“Shenzhou 8, Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10 are all being planned and the intervals between them will become shorter,” Xinhua quoted Qi as saying.

But China will apparently have to wait awhile before seeing its first female astronaut reach orbit.

“China’s space program has no missions for women astronauts yet, so we haven’t started selecting women astronauts,” Yang—who also serves as deputy director of the China Astronaut Research and Training Center—was quoted as saying by Xinhua.