March 25, 2013
Looking for a science book to read? Something with eccentric characters, irrational obsessions, and extreme experiments? Try Alex Boese’s book Electrified Sheep: Glass-eating Scientists, Nuking the Moon, and More Bizarre Experiments (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012).
Boese notes that when Pierre and Marie Curie first isolated radium in their lab in 1902, the mysterious metal appeared to produce a limitless amount of energy: “And where there is energy, medical entrepreneurs noted, there must be health! Physicians swung into action, promoting the beneficial effects of ‘radiumizing’ the body to an eager public. Retailers sold radium-treated water, describing the faintly glowing solution as ‘liquid sunshine.’ ” The radium craze persisted well into the 1930s; even Marie Curie insisted on the metal’s health benefits, maintaining this belief right up until 1934, when she died of radiation exposure. Boese writes:
A curious descendant of the invisible energy enthusiasm can even be found in a rather unlikely place—the Chinese space programme. Chinese scientists, from the very start of their space programme, have expressed great interest in the effect of cosmic rays on plants, hoping that such rays might produce Super Veggies to feed their growing population. At first they used high-altitude balloons to fly seeds up to the edge of space. Now seeds are taken aboard the Shenzhou spacecraft. The resulting crops, grown back on earth, are occasionally served in Shanghai restaurants. Space spuds, it’s reported, taste more “glutinous” than terrestrial varieties.
On 12 October 2005 the Shenzhou VI spacecraft blasted off carrying a particularly special cargo—40 grams of pig sperm to be exposed to cosmic rays. Whether or not the experiment generated positive results is unknown, because, after the initial announcement, a shroud of official state secrecy descended upon the mission. But maybe, somewhere on a farm in China, a giant, cosmic-ray-enhanced pig is rolling happily in the mud.
July 5, 2012
Reactions to China’s recent Shenzhou-9 mission, and to the Chinese space program in general, often seem like a Rorschach test, with Western observers variously seeing it as a threat or an opportunity, with purported goals ranging from setting up lunar bases to launching anti-satellite attacks.
There is general agreement, though, that Chinese space officials are not racing the United States as they recreate—with the number of steps greatly compressed—the 50-year technical evolution of human spaceflight. In just five missions, the Shenzhou program has gone from a Gagarin-esque solo flight to placing a small space station in orbit.
Gregory Kulacki, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, argues convincingly that China’s ambitions to orbit a space station date to the 1980s, and was primarily an attempt to keep up with other space powers who started planning their own stations around that same time.
Kulacki’s background paper on the subject is well worth reading, and has interesting detail on the internal deliberations that led China to abandon the notion of building a winged space shuttle and go with the Shenzhou capsule instead. He describes how 60 Chinese research organizations were asked for proposals for a reusable launch vehicle, six of which were chosen for further study in June 1988.
Five of the six proposals called for a space plane or space shuttle. The sixth proposal, in a challenge to the original request, called for a non-reusable launch vehicle with significantly less lift capacity, which could carry a much lighter capsule for use in a possible human program. In the end, after four years of increasingly contentious debate, this was the proposal that was adopted.
Opponents of the capsule proposal argued the combination of an existing Chinese launcher and small space capsule, like those used by the U.S. Apollo and Soviet Soyuz programs, was outdated technology. In August 1989 Ding Henggao, the director of [the Commission on Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense] and the head of an ad hoc National Leadership Small Group Office on Space, received a letter from the Advanced Technology Research Small Group of the Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT). The CALT letter argued a reusable space shuttle was “far superior” to the proposed capsule and was “the trend in international space development.” France had proposed a small space plane and the Soviet Union was beginning to develop its own shuttle program (which the new Russian government canceled in 1993 after only a single flight). The CALT group argued that launching astronauts in a space capsule rather than a shuttle would “not only not bring acclaim” to China’s space program, it would “disgrace the nation.”
Tu Shancheng, who headed the Project 863 experts group on space, called into question the value of a space shuttle. He calculated it would take a very large number of launches to realize the economy promised by any large reusable launch vehicle. Regardless of what China planned, it was highly unlikely China would approach such a high number of launches, especially since even the United States was well below the threshold Tu believed was needed to make a space shuttle economical.
Others members of the Project 863 expert group on space argued a space shuttle was unnecessarily complex, and carried a high risk of long delays given the state of Chinese aerospace technology at the time. Curiously, none of the Chinese histories mention the impact of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on this debate. Yet, for surprising and accidental reasons, it was this event, more than any other, which may have helped China’s experts move towards a consensus on the more modest capsule proposal. The accident coincided with an emerging Chinese interest in entering the satellite launch business.
Kulacki goes on to explain how, in the months following the Challenger accident, the United States decided that its space shuttle would get out of the business of launching commercial satellites. Chinese officials saw an opening for the county’s Long March rocket to compete for that business, and approved a more capable version of the Long March.
Success in … bringing the new launch vehicle into service quickly played a role in the ongoing debate over the human spaceflight program. China suddenly had an ability to place approximately 9.5 tons into low Earth orbit. That was enough to cover the first two stages of the tentative 30-year plan for a space station that was under consideration. Getting that plan underway in a reasonable period of time now seemed more feasible. It was at this point that [advocates of a Chinese space shuttle] set aside their preferences…and got behind the capsule proposal of a space capsule carried on a non-reusable launcher.
November 14, 2011
China’s Shenzhou 8 spacecraft and Tiangong-1 mini-space station separated briefly in orbit today, then reunited, in another demonstration of docking techniques for future space stations.
This animation calls it a “kiss in space,” although somehow I can’t imagine that term being used for NASA’s Gemini 8 docking in 1966. Maybe it was because there were astronauts onboard.