Aerospace experts saved the country's first ever manned space mission as the spaceship faced a potentially lethal impact while flying through the communications blackout area before landing, the country's space authorities revealed yesterday.
China became only the third country to put a man in space, after the former Soviet Union and the United States, when Yang Liwei orbited the Earth in 2003 in what was a resounding success for its space program.
But Xinhua News Agency reported that this was almost not so, quoting the Xi'an Satellite Monitor and Control Center's report on the dangers the Shenzhou V rocket faced.
"Yang lost every means to communicate with the ground command and control headquarters as he entered the (Earth atmosphere), which fell in the worst-case scenario prepared by the space mission team," Xinhua quoted Dong Deyi, head of the center, as saying.
Communications go down when any spacecraft re-enters the Earth's atmosphere, but in Yang's case, "even radar could not capture any signal from the returning module", Dong was quoted as saying.
"After the Shenzhou V came out of the blackout area, the echo signals from the spaceship were still volatile, which sufficiently threatened the safe landing of astronaut Yang."
Mission control promptly ordered optical guiding and tracking instead of a communication-guided landing, Dong was quoted as saying.
"Aerospace technologists used cinetheodolites (optical trackers) on the ground to measure the spacecraft's position and record movements. Precise positioning of the spacecraft enabled officers to properly control the slow-down parachute, which was vital to a soft landing."
But the landing was 9 km east of the planned site, Dong said.
China began its clandestine manned space program in 1992. The country has since spent at least 20 billion yuan ($2.64 billion) on the project and sent three astronauts into orbit.
Dong also revealed that at least three orbiting satellites were malfunctioning during certain periods, but all had been salvaged by experts since October 2006.
The Xi'an center, established on June 23, 1967, in the mountains of Northwest China, has monitored and controlled more than 100 satellites and the six Shenzhou spaceships. According to official records, China now has at least 19 satellites orbiting the earth.
China plans to chart every inch of the moon's surface as part of its ambitious space program.
China, which plans to launch a lunar orbiter called "Chang'e I" in the second half of this year to take 3D images, would aim to land an unmanned vehicle on its surface by 2010, Zhang Yunchuan, minister of the commission of science, technology and industry for national defense, said on Friday.
(China Daily 08/14/2007 page4)