Shenzhou is similar in design to the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Like Soyuz, Shenzhou consists of three modules: a cylindrical rear module that contains instrumentation and the propulsion system, a bell-shaped middle module that carries the crew during launch and landing, and a cylindrical forward orbital module that carries scientific and military experiments. (Unlike the Soyuz, the orbital module is capable of independent flight; on several Shenzhou missions, the orbital module remained in orbit for several months after its separation from the reentry module.)
Shenzhou is 9.3 metres (30.5 feet) long and weighs 7,840 kg (17,280 pounds). The launch vehicle is a Chang Zheng 2F (CZ-2F, or Long March 2F), a version of the CZ-2 specifically developed for the Shenzhou program.
The first four Shenzhou missions were uncrewed test flights launched over a three-year period (1999–2002). On October 15, 2003, Shenzhou 5 carried the first Chinese astronaut, pilot Yang Liwei, on a 21-hour spaceflight.
China thus became the third country after Russia and the United States to launch a crewed spacecraft. Shenzhou 6 was launched on October 12, 2005, lasted five days, and carried two astronauts. Shenzhou 7 was launched on September 25, 2008, and carried three astronauts; one of them, commander Zhai Zhigang, made the first Chinese space walk.