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Updated: May 02, 2006

Shenzhou, name of first Chinese manned spacecraft, as named by President Zemin.
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Recovery of FSW
Recovery of FSW
Recovery of FSW unmanned reconnaissance satellite capsule.
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Credit: via Sven Grahn
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Credit: via Chen Lan
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Chinese Shuttle
Chinese Shuttle
Chinese shuttle craft - model at the Chinese Pavilion, Hannover Expo 2000.The model indicates a spaceplane similar to the cancelled European Hermes.
Credit: © Mark Wade
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Chinese Space Statio
Chinese Space Statio
Chinese space station - model at the Chinese Pavilion, Hannover Expo 2000.The model also shows docked supply and propulsion (solid?) modules.
Credit: © Mark Wade
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Chinese on Moon
Chinese on Moon
Chinese astronauts with lunar rover plant the flag of the People's Republic of China's flag on the lunar surface - model at the Chinese Pavilion, Hannover Expo 2000.
Credit: © Mark Wade
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There is very little difference between men and women in space.


Chinese Programme
Chinese Space Programme as of 2003. Solid doghouses show completed tasks, unfilled milestones show plans current at that time. After a big start in 2000, the remainder of the ten-year plan seemed behind schedule.
Credit: © Mark Wade

As America entered a new millennium, it seemed that a new Cold War and a new Space Race was in the offing. This time, the challenger to the American super-power was China.

The black powder rocket was invented by the ancient Chinese, but no indigenous effort in development of rocketry or space theory took place until the return of Tsien Hsue-Shen to China from America in 1955. Since the birth of China's space program a year later its development has mirrored that of the nation as a whole. It went through stages of arduous pioneering, development, reform and revitalisation, and international co-operation. China's space industry was developed from a non-existent industrial infrastructure and scientific and technological level. After 45 years of struggle China ranked among the most advanced countries in such fields as satellite recovery, multi-satellite launch by a single rocket, cryogenic propulsion, strap-on boosters, geo-stationary satellites, and satellite tracking and control. Significant achievements were also made in remote-sensing and telecommunications satellites, micro-gravity experiments, and manned spacecraft development.

Tsien Hsue-Shen

The early development of the Chinese rocketry and space technology was led by American-trained Tsien Hsue-Shen. Tsien was born in Hangzhou, China in 1911 and went to America on a Boxer Rebellion Scholarship in 1935. Becoming a protégé of the legendary Theodor von Karman, Tsien was the leading theoretician in rocket and high-speed flight theory in the United States. He was instrumental in the founding of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, and collaborated closely with the newly-founded Aerojet Corporation. Tsien was a member of a team of top scientists that entered Germany just behind the American lines, locating and returning to the United States key documents and personnel of the advanced German aircraft and rocketry programs. Tsien first met Wernher von Braun during this period.

Returning from Germany, Tsien edited the leading findings of the project in the 800-page Jet Propulsion, which would become the classified technical Bible for post-war aircraft and rocket technical research in the United States. By 1949 Tsien applied the knowledge learned to the design of a practical intercontinental rocket transport (see Tsien Spaceplane 1949).

But in this same period Tsien's homeland was undergoing a chaotic period of civil war leading to the victory of Mao Tse-tung's Communist forces. In the larger world, the Cold War struggle had begun. Stalin had exploded an atomic bomb. It was revealed that the technology had been stolen from the Americans by wartime Soviet spies. The wartime ally was transformed to America's arch-enemy. In the backlash, McCarthyism took root in the United States.

Tsien seemed to have undergone a similar personal struggle of loyalty and allegiances. On the one hand he had applied to become a US citizen in 1949 and had become one of the senior scientists advising the US military on post-war development of rocket technology. On the other hand, Tsien was revolted by the corruption of the Chinese nationalists, faced racial discrimination in the United States, and constantly vacillated in his desire to return to his homeland.

On June 6, 1950, Tsien was visited by the FBI and accused of being a Communist party member. His security clearance was revoked, destroying his ability to conduct further research. He attempted to return to China, but was detained under virtual house arrest for five years, while his technical knowledge become more and more dated. In the 1955 Geneva talks on return of American prisoners of war, release of Tsien was made an explicit condition of the Chinese. Eisenhower himself agreed to do so, and in September 1955 Tsien left for China.

Arduous Pioneering

Building rocket and aircraft technology in China was to be a long process. Achieving the indigenous technologies in metallurgy, machinery, and electronics was an enormous task. Tsien assisted in negotiation of a 1956 agreement with the Soviet Union for transfer of rocket and nuclear technology to China, including training of Chinese students at Russian universities. The Russians provided an R-2 rocket, an improved version of the V-2, as a starting point. But in 1960 the Soviet government discontinued further co-operation with China. Nevertheless later that year Tsien launched the first Chinese-built R-2.

Chinese political upheavals - the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, Tsien's backing of the disgraced Lin Biao - further delayed progress. In 1968 Tsien founded the Space Flight Medical Research Centre to prepare for manned flights. The Shuguang-1 project aimed to put a Chinese man into space by 1973. By 1970, he had launched China's first satellite, the DFH-1, using his CZ-1 rocket, making China the fifth spacefaring country in the world. The China's ICBM provided the basis for the large two stage FB-1 and CZ-2A rockets. The FB-1, built by the losing side of the cultural revolution, was cancelled. The Shuguang-1, its officers implicated in the Lin Biao affair, was stopped. The CZ-2 however was elaborated into an extensive launch vehicle family over the next thirty years. Launches of the FSW photo reconnaissance satellite, with a recoverable re-entry capsule derived from that planned for the Shuguang-1, began in 1974.

Tsien's manned spacecraft design proposed in the late 1970's was a winged spaceplane (Tsien Spaceplane 1978), launched by a CZ-2 Spaceplane Launcher, consisting of the CZ-2 core booster with two large strap-on boosters. It so strongly resembled the cancelled US Dynasoar of 15 years earlier that US intelligence analysts wondered if it wasn't based on declassified Dynasoar technical information. It would seem that this was to be preceded by a simpler manned capsule (Chinese Manned Capsule 1978).

First public announcement of the manned program came in February, 1978. By November the head of the Chinese Space Agency, Jen Hsin-Min, confirmed that China was working on a manned space capsule and a "Skylab" space station.

In January, 1980 the Chinese press reported a visit with the Chinese astronaut trainees at the Chinese manned spaceflight training centre. Photographs appeared of the astronauts in training. Pressure suited astronauts were shown in pressure chamber tests. Other trainees were shown at the controls of a space shuttle-like spaceplane cockpit.

A fleet of ships for recovery of manned capsules at sea was built and in May, 1980, the first capsule was recovered from the South Pacific after a suborbital launch. But then, suddenly, in December, 1980, Wang Zhuanshan, the Secretary General of the New China Space Research Society and Chief Engineer of the Space Centre of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, announced that Chinese manned flight was being postponed because of its cost. Fundamental economic development was given priority.


China returned to development of more-modest unmanned spacecraft and entering the international commercial launch market in 1985. China developed new cryogenic engines and used a modular approach based on the CZ-2 design to create a family of 12 Long-March rocket configurations, capable of placing up to 9,200 kg into orbit. China launched 27 foreign-made satellites in 1985-2000. A series of launch failures lead to US assistance in improving the design, resulting in 21 consecutive successful flights from October 1996 to October 2000. However by then a US embargo over improper technology transfer and collapse of the MEO satellite market led to a sharp reduction in Chinese commercial launches. Geography and the availability of existing CZ-2 launch pads resulted in China establishing three land-locked launch sites to reach various orbits. These were Jiuquan, for launch to mid-inclination orbits, Xichang for launch to geosynchronous orbit, and Taiyuan for polar orbits.

Indigenous satellite development was not neglected. By October 2000, China had launched 47 satellites of various types, with a flight success rate of over 90%. Altogether, four satellite series were developed in China:

  • FSW (Fanhui Shei Weixing, Recoverable Test Satellite) Recoverable satellites, used initially for military reconnaissance. In the late 1980s, the design was employed for earth resources photography and experiments in crystal and protein growth, cell cultivation and crop breeding. China was the third country in the world to master the technology of satellite recovery.

  • DFH (Dongfanghong) telecommunications satellites. In the mid-1980s, China began to utilise domestic DFH-2 and foreign telecommunications satellites. For fixed telecom service, China built scores of large and medium-sized satellite telecom earth stations, with more than 27,000 international satellite telephone channels. The establishment of the DFH-3 domestic satellite public communication network, with more than 70,000 satellite telephone channels, solved the problem of communication in remote areas. By 2000 the VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) communication service had 30 domestic VSAT communication service providers and 15,000 small station users, including 6,300 two-way users (from areas such as finance, meteorology, transportation, oil, water resources, civil aviation, power, public health and media).

    China started to use foreign satellites for TV broadcasting in 1985, and formed a network with 33 transponders transmitting programs for CCTV (China Central Television) and local TV stations. Operation of satellite education TV broadcasting programs in 1988 trained over 30 million people in college or technical secondary school education. China also set up a satellite direct broadcasting experimental platform to transmit digital television to 189,000 dishes in China's vast rural areas.

  • FY (Fengyun) meteorological satellites. These provided an indigenous weather-tracking capability. The FY-1 series operated from low earth sun synchronous orbits while the FY-2 operated in geosynchronous orbit.

  • SJ (Shijian) scientific research and technological experiment satellites. China started to explore the upper atmosphere using rockets and balloons in the early 1960s. In the early 1970s, China began to utilise SJ satellites to obtain data on the space environment. The establishment of open state-level laboratories specialising in space physics, micro-gravity and space life science, and the founding of the Space Payload Application Centre provided the basis for public international collaboration on space science.

Manned projects remained unfunded. In 1984 President Reagan offered to fly a Chinese cosmonaut on the U.S. shuttle, but the Chinese were not interested. Subsequent efforts to involve them in the International Space Station were also unsuccessful. The Chinese press reported that astronauts were still in training in September, 1986, but also that manned spaceflight was still considered unaffordable. In contrast to its lack of desire to collaborate with the United States, in 1983-1988 China signed the various UN treaties on space and began participating in international conferences. In April 1998 China began export of its satellite technology with the signature of a memorandum of understanding with Iran, the Republic of Korea, Mongolia, Pakistan and Thailand for development of a 'Small Multi-Mission Satellite'

Reform and Revitalisation

In October 1991 Tsien was retired. In April 1992 the Chinese leadership decided that an independent manned space program could now be afforded and Moscow-trained Qi Faren was made chief designer for spacecraft. The State Council directed that a manned spacecraft be launched before the new millennium in order to establish China's place as one of the Great Powers. The Chinese National Manned Space Program was given the designation Project 921. The first portion, 921-1, was to be a manned space capsule with first flight by October 1999. The second stage, 921-2, was to be a manned space station. The third stage, 921-3, was a modern space-earth transportation system, using a delta winged orbiter, to be operational by 2020.

An early design of the spacecraft was presented to the International Astronautical Federation in 1992. The design was reminiscent of the Russian Soyuz, with a service module, a re-entry capsule, and a forward orbital module. The capsule in the rough drawing was of very unusual shape, and the orbital module was smaller than that of Soyuz. To launch the spacecraft a new rocket using liquid oxygen and kerosene was proposed. This would eliminate the toxic propellants used in the CZ-2E. Clustering of identical first stages would allow heavier payloads, such as the orbital laboratory, to be placed into orbit.

The original Project 921 proposal was issued by the Shanghai Astronautics Bureau in October 1993 for inclusion in the Eight and Ninth Five Year Economic Plans. Shanghai proposed the development of six large carrier rockets and eight new spacecraft, including a manned one, as part of the Eighth and Ninth Five Year Plans. But the plan was not approved in its entirety. The program for the new liquid oxygen and kerosene rockets was delayed, and resources were put instead into the development of large solid motors for military use. But the Project 921-1 spacecraft was approved for launch on a modification of the CZ-2E, called CZ-2F, and construction was started in the north-east suburbs of Beijing on a new flight control centre capable of handling manned spacecraft.

Project 921 was altered yet again in 1994. Cash-hungry Russia was now willing to sell some of its advanced aviation and space technology. In September, 1994 Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited the Russian Flight Control Centre in Kaliningrad, and noted that there were broad prospects for co-operation between the two countries in space. In March, 1995 a deal was signed to transfer manned spacecraft technology to China. Included in the agreement were training of cosmonauts, provision Soyuz spacecraft capsules and life support systems, androgynous docking systems, and space suits. In 1996 two Chinese astronauts, Wu Jie and Li Qinglong, began training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Russia. After training these men returned to China and to in turn train a cadre of Chinese astronauts.

The 921-1 spacecraft was modified to include a Soyuz capsule shape and other hardware elements. New launch facilities were built at the Jiuquan launch cite, and in May 1998 a mock-up of the CZ-2F launch vehicles and 921-1 spacecraft were rolled out for facilities tests. Authorisation to proceed with the Project 921-2 space station came in February 1999, with the first design review in May. A vacuum chamber with a diameter of 7 meters and a height of 12 meters was built to test the station. In June 1999, coincident with public announcements that first unmanned test of the spacecraft would be made in October, photographs of the CZ-2F launcher with the Soyuz-style shroud appeared mysteriously on the Internet. In July, completion of the Yuan Wang 4 tracking ship was announced, ready for deployment with its three sister ships in October. China's first unmanned experimental spacecraft - 'Shenzhou'- was successfully launched and recovered November 20-21, 1999. After three further unmanned tests, the first manned flight was set for late 2003.

Meanwhile the 921-2 space station project was modified. In the place of a clustered station, with modules launched by CZ-2E, it was decided to concentrate on a larger station orbited after 2010 in a single launch of the new CZ-5 booster. During the 2005-2010 period Shenzhou would instead be used to dock with more modest man-tended single-module stations orbited by CZ-2E. Plans were also mentioned to send it on a propaganda-generating Shenzhou circumlunar mission.

The New Millennium

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) was established as China's governmental organisation responsible for the management of satellites for civilian use and inter-governmental space co-operation with other countries. China's ten-year space objectives as established in 2000 were:

  • To build up an integrated Chinese military and civilian earth observation system. This would include meteorological, earth resource, oceanic, and disaster monitoring satellites. An important part of this would include a co-ordinated national satellite remote-sensing data system for receiving, processing and distributing data to both civilian and military users. This effort was begun with launch of the ZY-2 (Ziyuan - 'resource-2') satellite in September 2000. These were to be followed by the new Disaster Monitoring Constellation, the Earthquake Monitoring Satellite, and the FY-3, HY-1, Double Star, and SST satellites.

  • To set up an independently operated indigenously-built satellite broadcasting and telecommunications system. This would consist of geo-stationary telecommunications and direct broadcasting satellites with long operating life, high reliability and large capacity. Partnerships would be made with Western companies to increase the level of Chinese technology. Sinosat-1, launched in 1998, was the first such co-operative project between the Chinese and European aerospace industries. The technology would be used to develop new FH-1 military and DFH-4 civilian communications satellites to form a command-and-control network designed to link Chinese combat forces. Deployment of the new constellation began with Zhongxing 22 in January 2000.

  • To establish an independent Chinese satellite navigation and positioning system. This would be achieved by launching a satellite constellation in stages while developing the relevant application systems. The end result would be a Chinese indigenous satellite navigation and positioning industry. In the early 1980s, China began to utilise other countries' navigation satellites and develop the application technology of satellite navigation and positioning. After joining the COSPAS-SARSAT in 1992, China established the Chinese Mission Control Centre. Experimental launch of the first pair of indigenous Beidou navigation satellites began in 2000.

  • To upgrade China's launch vehicles. This would be achieved by improving the performance and reliability of the Long-March group, while simultaneously developing a new generation of expendable launch vehicles using non-toxic, high-performance propellants with lower operating costs (CZ-NGLV-522/HO)

  • To achieve the first Chinese manned spaceflight aboard the Shenzhou and complete research and development for future manned space projects (Project 921-2, Chinese Space Laboratory, Shenzhou Circumlunar).

  • To develop a new generation of scientific research and technological experiment satellites. These would conduct studies in micro-gravity, materials science, life sciences, space environment, astronomy, and preliminary studies for manned exploration of the moon. The first of these new series were the SJ-5, CX-1, OlympicSat, and TS-1 satellites.

The long-term 20-year development targets were established as:

  • Industrialisation and marketing of space technology and applications.

  • Establishment of an integrated space infrastructure and a satellite ground application system that harmonises spacecraft and ground equipment.

  • Permanent establishment of China's own manned spaceflight system and conduct of manned spaceflight scientific research and technological experiments 'on a certain scale'. Depending on available budget, this could include the Chinese Space Laboratory, and the Chinese Lunar Base. The Project 921-3 spaceplane was not mentioned as a realistic development project much after 2000 (perhaps due to the collapse of the NASA X-33 and SLI programmes).

  • To become a world leader in the field of space science and exploration of outer space.

  • Continued international co-operation to both obtain more-advanced technology from Western countries and to assist developing countries in development of space technology.

As implementation of the new plan began, the situation between the United States and China resembled the Cold War and Space Race. The allegations of Chinese theft of American technology through espionage, and the following security crackdowns and spy hunts, were strongly reminiscent of the early 1950's. It seemed that the second Cold War was beginning, with a second Space Race as well. Thus began the new millennium and the 'Chinese Century', in which China was projected to become the richest, most populous, and most powerful nation on Earth.

Addendum - Chinese Space Infrastructure

The national space programme was managed by the China Aerospace Corporation (CASC - called the Ministry of Aerospace Industry before 1993). CASC continued to act as a government department when dealing with foreign affairs in the name of the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

There were five main Research Academies under CASC:

  • Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicles Technology (CALVT), responsible for design and manufacture of the Long March series of liquid propellant launch vehicles
  • Chinese Academy of Space Technology, responsible for design and manufacture of satellites
  • Academy of Solid Rockets
  • Academy of Tactical Missile Technology
  • Academy of Cruise Missile Technology.

Commercial space activities were handled by the China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC). CGWIC was a foreign trade company, exclusively responsible for international sales, marketing, commercial negotiation, contract execution and performance. CGWIC established business relations with a number of companies and research institutes in the United States, Sweden, Germany, France, Australia, Britain, Brazil, the International Communication Satellites Organisation, the International Marine Satellites Organisation, and other international organisations.

Chinese Space Educational Infrastructure

The first departments of Aeronautics were established in 1940 at Tsinghua University, Shanghai Chao-Tang University, Central University and Zhejiang University. Following the return to China of Tsien Hse Shen and other US-educated experts in 1958, the Beijing Aeronautical Institute, Northwestern Polytechnic University, Xarbin Polytechnical University, Xarbin Military Institute of Technology and others established their departments of astronautics. Northwestern Polytechnical University has provided an astronautics curriculum without interruption since 1958. In its first forty years it granted more than 5000 Bachelors, 500 masters and 80 PhD degrees in astronautics. The other institutes had their activities interrupted by the Cultural Revolution and only resumed teaching in the subject after 1985. Areas of specialisation include Flight Vehicle Design, Rocket Engine Design, Control Engineering, Flight Mechanics, Electronics, Avionics, and Computer Sciences. These departments of Astronautics are now called colleges of Astronautics.

Satellite launch sites

China has over the years established three launch sites for its space program:

  • The Jiuquan launch site located to the north of Jiuquan city in Gansu province. There were four launch pads at the Jiuquan launch site, complete with ground support facilities, from which 24 low earth orbit satellites were launched from 1970 into higher inclination orbits. In 1999 the facility was improved by the addition of a southern area, with a new Vertical Assembly Building and launch pad for heavy and manned launch vehicles.
  • The Taiyuan launch site located 139 km from Taiyuan city in Shanxi province. This launch site was used for the launch of sun-synchronous and other polar orbit satellites.
  • The Xichang satellite launch centre located near Xichang city in Sichuan province. The Xichang satellite launch centre was used for launch of geostationary satellites into low inclination transfer orbits. Xichang has the geographical advantage of being at a relatively low latitude. All of China's geostationary satellites have been launched from Xichang, as well as foreign geostationary satellites launched by Chinese boosters.

Tracking, Telemetry and Command Network

China's tracking, telemetry and command system was constructed and developed in close step with the development of launch sites. Up until the late 1990's, China's TT and C system consisted of a control centre located at Xi'an city in Shaanxi province, eight ground stations (5 fixed stations and 3 mobile stations), and two TT and C ships. The 5 fixed ground stations were located at Weinan (near Xi'an), Min'xi (in Fujian province), Changchun (in Jilin province), Karshi (in Xinjiang), and Nanning (in Guangxi). Although located entirely within China, this network of optical and radio tracking devices, and radio telemetry and command links was very successful in fulfilling the needs of China's early space program.

In the late 1990's the original system was supplemented to support the manned space program of the post-2000 period. The number of fixed stations on Chinese territory were increased to six. Agreements were signed with France, Brazil, and Sweden to mutually share tracking stations. An agreement was signed with France in February 1999 to tie together the French CNES control centre with the Chinese centre in Xian,. In January 2000 gave China access to the Swedish Space Corporation's tracking facilities in Sweden and Norway. New tracking stations were built outside of Chinese territory (in the Pacific, on South Tarawa Island of the Republic of Kiribati and at Swakopmund, Namibia, Africa). The cooperative CBERS project resulted in installation of Chinese satellite control equipment at a ground station in Brazil. A sixteen month overhaul of China's space tracking fleet was completed in Shanghai in 1999 and the fleet was increased to a total of four ships.

On a longer-range basis, a Chinese Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) was studied. The planned TDRSS would include two geostationary satellites and relay data from 5-10 satellites at a time while over 85% of the globe.

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Last update 8 January 2006.

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