The Chinese space program is advancing faster than a jet engine! Just a few days ago, the Chinese astronauts of the Shenzhou-14 mission successfully conducted their third extravehicular activity outside the Tiangong Space Station; the crew installed a device to connect Tiangong’s Tianhe core module with the new Mengtian module. A few days after the first EVA, another important milestone in Chinese space history was achieved: on November 29 2022, a Long March 2F took off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center with three taikonauts as part of the Shenzhou-15 mission. On board the capsule there was the commander Fei Junlong, alongside Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu. For the first time, two CSS crews meet directly in orbit.
The crew was shot into orbit by a Long March 2F, also known as “Shenjian“, the first orbital launcher of the Chinese space program, derived from the Long March 2E and capable of carrying astronauts onboard the Shenzhou capsule. Compared to the Long March 5 B (the big boy that fall on our head at every launch), which launched the main module of the Tiangong station, it is a bit taller (58.3 meters versus 53.7) meters but with a much lower payload capacity (8.6 tons versus 25 tons). The Long March 2F comprises 2 stages and 4 auxiliary side boosters; all the engines use N2O4 dinitrogen tetroxide as an oxidant and UDMH asymmetric dimethylhydrazine as a propellant.
The Shenzhou launched in 1999 with the first uncrewed flight as a licensed copy of the Soyuz; it has slightly larger dimensions than the Soviet capsule but uses all-new construction and materials. The Spacecraft consists of three sections similar to the Russian Soyuz Vehicle it is based on: the Orbital Module is located above the Entry Module and houses crew quarters, life support systems, and mission-specific items. Instrumentation Module that provides the spacecraft’s electrical power, attitude, control, and propulsion while in orbit. The module features two solar arrays deployed after orbital insertion and an Entry Module between the other two sections. The crew is located in the Entry Module for launch and landing. Its structure consists of a titanium frame and aluminum alloy sidewalls, base, and pressure vessel.
The crew is going to occupy the Station for six months. The newly arrived taikonauts will focus on installing equipment and facilities around the space station with several extravehicular activities. In these months, they will also perform tons of experiments (around 40) using the pods installed outside the Station. The crew will mainly use the Wentian module (the second sent into orbit) and will organize the new equipment that arrived with the latest cargo spacecraft.
The Shenzhou-15 team is led by the 57-year-old Fei Junlong, who previously commanded the Shenzhou-6 mission in 2005; it is his first time in space since then. For Qingming this is the maiden flight in space after being the reserve taikonaut on three other missions. Regarding Zhang, Sehnzhou-15 is his first mission in orbit, representing a change of strategy by CNSA as it was usually preferred to have one astronaut with no experience alongside two with at least one mission.