Rockets of Today

SHÉNZHŌU (神舟) — China, 1999/2003

This is basically a copy of the Soyuz, based on technology shared by Russia, only with a little more room in every dimension, and a lengthened cylindrical orbital module which bumps the habitable space up to 14 cubic meters, and the mass to eight tons. In some versions, the orbital module can detach and move autonomously, and be docked with again on a second flight. The service module is enhanced over the Soyuz, with more motors and much bigger solar arrays. The descent module remains Soyuz-like, and seats three “taikonauts”.

Since it lands the same way a Soyuz does, by descending under a single parachute and then using a short rocket blast to cushion the last meter of descent before hitting the dirt, the experience is similarly rough, and is probably just as prone to inflicting injuries on the passengers. In 2023 a Shenzhou landing on a windy day got a tear in its chute and then tumbled head over heat shield after touching the ground. They got everyone out largely uninjured, but I doubt any of them were feeling ready for a game of hoops.

Unlike the Long March rocket, the name Shenzhou is not usually translated when given in English. It can be translated as “heavenly vessel” — a lot of their space stuff uses the “shén” root word, which in other contexts might translate more as “divine” or “spirit”, or even “magic”. The name shénzhōu happens to be homophonic with an ancient name for China itself, 神州, which meant “divine state” or “divine land”. (Zhōu meaning boat or craft and zhōu meaning territory or region are pronounced the same in Han but written differently, as is the common surname derived from the ancient Zhōu dynasty, and the word for congee porridge — four different written characters.)

Through 2023, there have been a total of 12 crewed Shenzhou flights, all successful, with 32 occupied seats. Before their space station went up, they made just six flights across 18 years, but now they’re going about twice a year, and that will probably increase.