In addition to the starship Discovery, 2017’s new Star Trek TV series will also feature a second starship — captained by Michelle Yeoh’s character — named the Shenzhou, which is almost certainly in honor of a real-life Chinese spacecraft also named Shenzhou.
First launched in 1999, the Shenzhou program has been likened to the Russian Soyuz program. Both are the bread and butter vehicles of their respective space program, and they share a fair amount of technological functionality and design aesthetics. Shenzhou craft consist of three modules: orbital, service, and reentry. Like the Apollo and Soyuz programs of the ‘60s and ‘70s, these multi-part craft are designed so each part serves a specific function: to limit the amount of materials that have to be returned to Earth. Think of it as the opposite of NASA’s space shuttle program in which the whole shuttle is preserved each time.
The name Shenzhou itself loosely translates into English as “Divine Craft” or “Magic Boat,” though it also can be interpreted as an alternate name for China as a whole, too.
Because the Shenzhou have been the bread-and-butter of the contemporary Chinese space program for almost two decades, it seems like the new Star Trek is predicting that this trend will continue well into the future. And while older Star Trek shows have paid homage to real-life naval vessels of Earth, it’s been rare for actual spaceships to be given a second and glamorous warp-speed life in the fictional 23rd or 24th centuries. Whether Star Trek: Discovery makes this Shenzhou connection explicit remains to be seen.
Star Trek: Discovery airs in the spring of 2017.