Rockets of Today

NEXT-GENERATION CREWED SPACECRAFT (新一代载人飞船, XīnYīDài Zàirén Fēichuán) — China

This new capsule, which has yet to get a real name, is blunt at the top like a Dragon, and could seat six, but only three if cargo is included in the flight. Interior volume is thirteen cubic meters. It has an unusually substantial service module, like Apollo had — one that can carry ten tons of fuel, giving this far more delta-V than most other capsules. This would make it quite a capable spacecraft for going to the moon or beyond. There’s also a short version of the service module for near-Earth flights.

Very little was known of this until 2020, shortly before the first test article was launched. As with Orion, they launched it into a high elliptical orbit and gave it a very fast and punishing reentry. Because of its chunky size, this required a Long March 5 — in fact, the maiden launch of the 5B. So like the Orion and the Orel, this is definitely being built to handle more than mere orbital flight. Like the Starliner, it uses airbags to land on dirt, and jettisons its heat shield first. The rest of the capsule is reusable... but that first test article landed with the paint deeply burnt over the whole surface, so a certain amount of refurbishment is undoubtedly called for. In one picture, the capsule appears to be shown with half if its skin removed, and deep thermal discoloration on the remaining skin, which was paintless. Nonetheless, they pronounced themselves satisfied with the heat shielding performance.

China is quite determined to put people on the moon, and though they have as yet shown nothing that can land there, this is the craft that will get them to lunar orbit, probably atop a triple-booster version of the Long March 5.