China Launch Gaffe: Who Should We Believe?

The Long-March II-F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-7 spaceship plus three crew blasts off (Xinhua/Li Gang)

The Long-March II-F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-7 spaceship plus three crew blasts off (Xinhua/Li Gang)

China has high hopes to be the third nation to successfully carry out a spacewalk after launching three taikonauts into orbit today. According to officials, the Shenzhou-7 spacecraft has successfully completed its first orbital manoeuvres and is currently orbiting 343 km above the Earth. The world now waits for news that the first Chinese astronaut has successfully left the capsule to explore the vacuum of space for the first time. It all sounds rather exciting doesn’t it?

But this feat pails into insignificance when compared with another stunning achievement. The Chinese authorities have shown that not only can they blast man into space – following in the pioneering footsteps of Russia and the USA – they also have the ability to foresee the future. Either that, or they’ve found a way to travel through time. Amazing as it may sound, it really did happen; transcripts of a “future” conversation between the Shenzhou-7 astronauts, whilst in orbit, were published on the official Chinese news website hours before the rocket engines had even ignited…

Wow!

After this order, signal lights all were switched on, various data show up on rows of screens, hundreds of technicians staring at the screens, without missing any slightest changes

One minute to go!”

Changjiang No.1 found the target!”

The firm voice of the controller broke the silence of the whole ship. Now, the target is captured 12 seconds ahead of the predicted time…”

The air pressure in the cabin is normal!”

Ten minutes later, the ship disappears below the horizon. Warm clapping and excited cheering breaks the night sky, echoing across the silent Pacific Ocean.”

- Apparent dialogue between the three Chinese astronauts on board Shenzhou-7 shortly after launch (text was published online hours before lift-off, and the article was dated for release on September 27th).

The above text says it all. The launch was successful and the three astronauts on board Shenzhou-7 were able to report that everything was working as expected, plus some nice narrative to give some atmosphere. The only problem was that this transcript was published on the official Chinese news website Xinhuanet.com long before Shenzhou-7 had even been launched atop the Long-March II-F rocket. The article, as if predicting the future, was dated for a September 27th release (two days from now), remained online for several hours before it was pulled offline. An Associated Press journalist was able to retrieve the text before it disappeared.

So this poses some difficult questions. Why would the Chinese space agency (or other government agency) prepare a pre-emptive article in the first place? Surely, if the mission was a success (as it seems to be) a real transcript could be recorded and published in real time. Does this mean Chinese officials were preparing for the worse, writing a fictitious article to cover up a failed launch? If this were true, who’s to say a manned launch happened at all? OK, this is pushing into the realms of conspiracyville, but it’s only natural for suspicions to be roused.

The People’s Republic of China has some heavy communist overtones, and much of the news is controlled by the state. This can only add to the concern that we’re not hearing the whole story.

When the state-run news agency Xinhua was questioned about the article, a staff member of the Xinhuanet.com web site said the posting of the article was a “technical error” by a technician. He refused to give his name (apparently a common response by Chinese officials).

An image from orbit. The taikonauts prepare the spacesuits for an EVA (Xinhua/Zha Chunming)

An image from orbit (possibly). The taikonauts prepare the spacesuits for an EVA (that's what we are told anyway...). Credit: Xinhua/Zha Chunming

The mystery article is a shocking reminder that space exploration is a powerful political tool. The Chinese space programme has gone from strength to strength in recent years and their continued successes suggest the country’s aim to land a taikonaut on the Moon in the next decade is on track. This progress has reverberated in the ranks of NASA, prompting even the US space agency’s administrator Michael Griffin to postulate that China could beat the US in the race back to the lunar surface.

So who do we believe? Do we believe that a technician really did post the article by accident? (Although somebody had to have written the thing in the first place. So was it an elaborate prank?) Do we believe the AP report? (Perhaps the facts were manipulated in some way? However, a cached Chinese version of the page appears to exist.)

Regardless, these events will be very embarrassing to Beijing and overshadow an incredible achievement by the dedicated scientists and engineers working to advance the nation’s space aspirations.

So, we await an official explanation. However, I’ll bet China will want to ignore this problem, hoping it will just go away…

For more on the day’s events covering the Long-March II-F launch, have a read of Nancy’s article over at the Universe Today.

Sources: AP, Network World, CNET, Xinhuanet

5 responses to “China Launch Gaffe: Who Should We Believe?

  1. Actually, I’ve seen other websites post futuristic dates before. Of course, the professional media services prepare the events beforehand and publish a story about it immediately after or while it is happening. That is being done by NASA, ESA and many others I’m sure.

    The Chinese did announce that there would be live broadcasting from the event. Releasing a written description of the event makes sense and there is nothing particular by preparing most of it beforehand making it ready for publishing right away along with the TV missions.

    I do not think any of us will know what really happened. I also believe that the western world is capable of sabotaging the event by saying that the Chinese published preproduced material. They have as much political reasons to put sticks in the wheels of the Chinese as the Chinese have to brag about their space merits.

    The first time I ever heard somebody question the fact that USA landed on the moon was last year – in China. Later I’ve read more about it, but it was a Chinese colleague that first mentioned it to me. :-)

    We simply do not know if the Xinhua story is true or if the EVA took place or whatever. Well, maybe the military knows. Probably they do! :-D

  2. I think we all saw the news – They did it !

    Unless you have been living on a desert island, you cannot but have noticed the progress China has made in technology.

    Their consumer electronics dominate world markets not just because they are cheap, but because they deliver value for money.

    Where will they be in 20 years ?

    A frightening thought.

  3. Pingback: Top 5 Space Exploration Mishaps of 2008 | astroengine.com

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