The successful launch and safe return of China’s fourth unmanned spacecraft Shenzhou IV has paved the way for the eagerly awaited manned flights. The questions like who are the first generation of China’s space envoys and how they are trained have now become a public concern.
Su Shuangning is chief director and designer of astronaut systems and head of the Institute of Space Medico-Engineering. This means that it is Su who is in charge of the selection and training of China’s astronauts. In a recent interview with a Xinhua News Agency reporter, he revealed some of the mysteries surrounding the astronauts.
"The training of China’s astronauts is proceeding according to plan. We are now in a position to send fully trained astronauts into space at any time," said a confident Su Shuangning.
Selected from Fighter Pilots
According to Su Shuangning, those who make up the first generation of China’s astronauts have all been fighter pilots. Just to be considered for selection, they needed some 1,000 hours of flight experience coupled with superb flying skills. They also had to satisfy minimum requirements of four-year tertiary education, robust physique, excellent psychological qualities and quick reactions.
Flying fast jets is good preparation for space. "Takeoffs and landings are at high speed making them complex and demanding exercises. Supersonic flight, high-altitude flight and high-speed maneuvering all require the application of technical precision while coping with air pressure variations and pulling g-forces several times normal. And of course the unique brand of qualities that fighter pilots have developed to cope with emergency situations like parachute ejection coupled with a high level of problem solving skills means they have particularly valuable experience to bring to their new role in space. Out of every 100 candidates who come forward for astronaut selection only one is chosen," said Su.
Strong in Mind and Body
China’s astronauts are typically 1.7 meters (5 feet 7 inches) tall and weigh in around 65 kg (143 pounds). According to Su, a shorter figure can fit more easily into the restricted dimensions of a space capsule. There is a further physiological benefit as a short strong frame is built around a strong spinal column, which is more resistant to impact stress.
The restrictive selection criteria are necessary because the astronauts must face even more exacting demands than fighter pilots.
During the ascent into orbit, the astronauts will have to withstand not just the noise of the rocket but also g-forces, which will make them five times their normal weight. Once in orbit there will be weightlessness and cosmic radiation to contend with. During descent, the g-forces are faced again this time coupled with the thermal effects of re-entry. Despite the technology of heat resistant materials there will be no escape from high temperatures. Then at the very last minute comes the final test, the impact of touchdown. It is therefore not surprising that these elite crewmembers have all undergone rigorous physical examinations and psychological testing.
The physical examinations undergone by the astronauts are a far cry from those for the man in the street. This is no ordinary check-up, the candidates are actually hospitalized for a full month of tests. A raft of modern medical procedures seeks out every hidden potential illness or hereditary disease. Even their partners are checked. Then comes demanding physiological testing. There is a severe 8 g-force centrifuge test. A further test of space suitability finds the candidates placed in chair and spun rapidly for 15 minutes.
The would-be astronauts’ proven good health and exceptional physiological functions need to be complemented by superb psychological qualities.
The candidates are put through a series of psychological tests simulating a range of different scenarios. Then come the questionnaires specially prepared by the psychologists to probe their very personalities.
The dimensions of the international space station are less than those of an ordinary two-room apartment. And the interior of a spacecraft is about the size of a domestic bathroom.
The astronauts will need nerves of steel if they are to stay and work for long spells in the isolation of space. They will have to be able to show the care necessary to conduct scientific experiments while living with all the unexpected hazards of space.
Su Shuangning has revealed the three distinct stages in the training of China’s astronauts.
1) Basic theory
The astronauts are required to learn the design principles of rockets and spacecraft, flight dynamics, meteorology, astronomy, communications, facilities testing and space medicine.
2) Professional skills
The astronauts must know the structure of the spacecraft and the workings and layout of its many systems. They have many key components to become familiar with not to mention being well versed in the mechanics of the propulsion unit on which so much depends.
3) The flight simulator
The flight simulator brings the astronauts as close as possible to the real thing. They thoroughly familiarize themselves the procedures of space flight again and again until they become second nature. They practice every aspect of the mission from entering the spacecraft through the launch sequence and operating the craft in orbit to re-entry and landing procedures.
Their instructors will program the simulator to replicate all manner of emergencies in order to fully develop the ability to recognize and react well to every possible malfunction.
Survival skills are also an important part of astronaut training. If the spacecraft were to miss the designated landing area with the search and rescue teams unable to reach them right away, then the astronauts must be able to fend for themselves. The astronauts have undertaken survival exercises in a variety of climates and terrain including sea, desert and rain forest.
It usually takes from three to five years to finish the full three-stage training. It is equivalent to undertaking a university education all over again.
Familiarization on Shenzhou IV
It is now known that the astronauts had a one-week familiarization on the Shenzhou IV spacecraft in April of 2002.
Chief Director of the Shenzhou Spacecraft Program Yuan Jiajun disclosed that though the recent successful Shenzhou IV was an unmanned space flight, its pathfinder function was to test that the technologies were in place for manned space flight.
During the familiarization procedure, scientists briefed the astronauts on the technologies of manned space flight and helped prepare them for their forthcoming mission. The astronauts were able to gain valuable hands-on experience with all the controls and instrumentation of an actual spacecraft. Afterwards they commented favorably on the spacecraft, approving of the design.
Home Comforts in Space
The astronauts will be at the very heart of the coming manned space flight. Su Shuangning spoke of his sphere of operations as having a focus not only on the selection and training of qualified astronauts but also on ensuring their health and safety while on the mission.
Su said, "Providing a comfortable home for the astronauts while in space is a top priority. Once in space, their capsule will be operating in conditions of low gravity, high vacuum and powerful radiation. In order to guarantee their health and safety and to enable them to work efficiently, we have done everything possible to create an artificial environment that is as close as possible to conditions at the earth’s surface. Both medical and ergonomic factors have been taken into consideration in the design and construction of the spacecraft."
Su speaks of the spacecraft being fully equipped with systems to monitor and assess the physical condition of the astronauts.
Could space travel one day become a matter of routine for ordinary people once a comfortable home in space can be assured? Su thinks yes. He said, "In addition to highly trained astronauts, some engineers and other experts will also be taking part in the manned space flight program and the future will see space tourism. The demanding physical requirements will be relaxed progressively as arrangements are made to bring these new categories of space travelers on board. So as China’s manned space flight technologies are developed it will indeed become possible in the future for ordinary people to realize their dream of space travel."
(China.org.cn, edited and translated by Wang Qian, January 13, 2003)