- Parabolic Arc
- November 13, 2023
Shenzhou-17 Delivers Crew to Chinese Space Station
China successfully launched its Shenzhou-17 mission on Thursday morning (October 26). The mission was intended to both resupply China’s Tiangong space station and swap out its 3-person crew from the previous Shenzhou-16 mission for a new crew.
This successful launch represents the growing routinization of the Chinese crewed presence in outer space, and is coming amidst the backdrop of yet more countries—this time Pakistan and Russian-aligned Belarus—pledging their support to the Chinese space program and its plan to develop an increasingly-international Moon base.
Shenzhou and Tiangong
Shenzhou-17 is named after the Shenzhou spacecraft, which is the key craft in the Chinese crewed spaceflight program. (The term “Shenzhou” roughly translates to “divine vessel [on the Heavenly River],” which is a poetic reference to the Milky Way.) It is reminiscent of the Russian-made Soyuz, but is somewhat larger, with a total mass of 7,840 kilograms (17,280 lbs).
The Shenzhou craft consists of three modules: an orbital module that can carry payloads, scientific equipment, and space for crew habitation; a reentry module that contains crew seating and controls, and is (appropriately) used for reentry; and a service module, which hosts life support, propulsion, and electrical modules, including the attachment points for the craft’s solar panels. The orbital module also has its own panels and propulsion capabilities, however, as it’s built to be able to remain in orbit after detachment of the reentry module.
The Taikonauts inside the Shenzhou were all former PLA Air Force fighter pilots. Shenzhou-17 Commander Tang Hongbo is an experienced Taikonaut who flew on Shenzhou-12 in 2021. The other crew members (Tang Shengjie and Jiang Xinlin) both joined the PLA Taikonaut Corps in 2020, and both were new to space. In fact, they are the youngest group of Taikonauts in Chinese history, according to Reuters.
The rocket carrying them into space is the well-known Chang Zheng 2F (“Long March”) expendable rocket system, which is the human-rated version of the Chang Zheng 2E. It is a liquid-fueled, two-stage, medium-lift rocket that features four boosters, with both rocket and boosters using YF-20B liquid-fuel engines.
Notably, despite being based on an older rocket series, the CZ-2F has a 100 percent success rate. This is, of course, vitally important considering its main job is delivering the crewed Shenzhou into orbit, and providing support for China’s Tiangong (“Celestial Palace”) space station.
Tiangong construction began in 2021, and was completed last year. It has been continuously crewed by teams of three Taikonauts, who are rotated every three months. Commander Tang Hingbo and his team will be going there for the next three months, and the current Taikonauts will be returning in the previous Shenzhou’s reentry capsule in the coming days.
A launch without incident
Shenzhou-17 launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, located in the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia.
The launch itself went almost entirely without incident. Like most Western launches, it was live-streamed; by China’s official CCTV channel and by Reuters. The pre-launch period featured shots of the Taikonauts sitting in their seats waiting to go, various engineers inspecting parts of the rocket from inside the fold-away launch mount building, mission control, and a variety of dramatic drone shots from above the rocket.
The countdown ticked down without delay, the CCTV anchors emphasizing that there were no problems detected. Ignition was called, and Shenzhou-17 went up—complete with dramatic footage of the rising rocket from nearby high-flying drones.
The rocket hit Max-Q without incident, hit booster and stage separation without incident, and hit MEC without incident. Aside from the lack of the now-trademark SpaceX automated booster landing, it was as clockwork as a 2023 Starlink launch. And aside from the rocket and launch mount, it could have passed for one.
At the time of writing, Shenzhou-17 was on its way to Tiangong—again, without incident.
This lack of drama may in and of itself be notable, considering China only began human spaceflight in 2005, and its space station was completed less than a year ago. China at least seems to be making good on the idea that it is providing a clear competitor to both the ISS and the commercial LEO stations that are aiming to serve as its replacement, but which are already seeing some difficulty and consolidation. Other countries may well sign on to contribute to a more stable-seeming ISS replacement if the Axiom and Voyager Space/Nanoracks projects are seen as faltering.
They may also start looking to the Chang Zheng series as a viable alternative for providing launch capability; especially the CZ-5 heavy lift variant, as heavy lift is still at a premium right now with the ongoing testing delays faced by SpaceX’s Starship launcher.
And, by making these Shenzhou/Tiangong launches routine, it makes China’s Artemis alternative, the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), that much more credible. Though Artemis presents itself as international and open to multinational involvement, and though China has not stated any antagonism towards Artemis, there is a clear sense that, as Xiaodan Wu of the China Central University of Finance and Economics recently published in the journal Space Policy, “China and the United States will be actual competitors in their intentionally chosen programs within roughly the same time period … the ILRS versus the Artemis Program,” even despite the fact that “it might not be China’s primary or initial intention to compete with the United States.”
At the moment, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Russia, Venezuela, South Africa, Belarus, and Azerbaijan have all either expressed interest in contributing to ILRS or have signed memoranda of understanding to that effect. As Shenzhou launches continue to become more familiar and routine, this may begin to pick up speed, further reinforcing American concerns that they might be falling behind.
This may also be exacerbated by the very real possibility that Artemis will be seriously delayed owing to the continual regulatory setbacks affecting Starship launch testing, and therefore of the Starship-based Human Landing System that Artemis will be relying upon.
Editor’s note (10/26/23): The image accompanying this article was changed after publication.