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China’s space program

August 2, 2008 – 8:49 am

Recently China has put more effort in building a independent space program. While not as huge as those from the USA and Russia, China has made substantial progress and might be major player in this field soon. With this article I want to give a quick overview about everything You have to know about China’s space program.

1950 – 1959

In this timespan lies the birth of the Chinese space program. As nuclear weapons became popular among the leading world superpowers, especially the USA and Russia, Chairman Mao wanted to have an similar program of strategic weapons.

During the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee meeting at January the 15th 1955 he announced his ideas:



He said, that it is not enough to have artillery and bomber aircrafts, China also needs The Bomb (read: nuclear bomb). He went on, that in today’s world, if one doesn’t want to be bullied, one must have it.

Soon after the launch of Sputnik 1 (人造卫星) at the 4th October 1957 Chairman Mao wanted to put more effort in this program. In May 1958 he announce China should launch its own first satellite before 1960.

1960 – 1969

China didn’t reach the space with a rocket before 1960, then in 1960 they made it for the first time to launch a rocket capable to reach the lower border or space, however yet unable to deploy any satellite. 1960 also was a year of change. Before there was a substantial technology transfer from Russia to China, then with the era of Khrushev this cooperation had a rather abrupt end.

During the following years the China’s space program evolved, yet there was only few scientific value in it. The main goal was to build rockets for the nuclear warheads.

With the space race going full speed between USA and Russia Chairman Mao decided 1967 that China needs a human space program as well. Base 27 (二十七基地) today known as Xichang Satellite Launch Center (西昌卫星发射中心) was built to accommodate these plans.

1970 – 1979

At the 24th of April 1970 China deploy its first satellite named 东方红一号 (The East is Red) into space using a Long March-1 SLV.

With the political changes of the 70s and the death of Chairman Mao in 1976 the Chinese space program saw some rather calm times. New developments were deemed unnecessary. However more 东方红一号 satellites were launched during the 70s, 80s and 90s.

1980 – 1989

in 1981 the technology of sending more than 1 satellite with a rocket into space was mastered.

In 1986 the next human space program was proposed which included even a space station. Initial plans presented 2 years later were rejected and a more simple design using a capsule design was chosen. Althoug not successful, this plan led to the next Chinese human space program started in 1992.

1990 – 1999

In 1992 a new human space program was selected. The Shenzhou program (神舟) which would later be China’s first successful human space program. Although it was planned to make the first manned launch in October 1999, before the new millennium, the unmanned test flights took place in 1999, 2001 and 2002.

2000 – Now

In October the 15th 2003 the first Chinese astronaut, 杨利伟 Yang Liwei, started into space with a Shenzhou capsule. This is the first time China brought a human into space without help from other nations. This flight had a duration of 90 minutes in orbit.

The 12th of October 2005 is another date to remember. A 2 man crew was launched into space with a Shenzhou spaceship. This time the capsule was heavily improved compared to the first version. Even sleeping bags were included as this flight lasted more than 4 days in orbit.

In October 2007 Chang’e-1 (嫦娥一号 Cháng’é Yīhào) a unmanned probe was sent to the moon, returning high resolution images from the moon’s surface. Initially a lot of media coverage including the release of pictures sparked hope that this project would be very open. However after the initial moments, new pictures or scientific results were published.

The future of China’s space program

A lot is planned for the future.

October 2008: Shenzhou spaceship manned with 3 astronauts will orbit the Earth.

A model of a future Chinese space station. This picture might be outdated as new developements are being made.
A model of a future Chinese space station. This picture might be outdated as new developements are being made.

Expected around 2010 China wants to put a first space station consisting of 3 parts into space. Shenzhou 9 will be unmanned and bring food and other working materials into space. A main spacestation module labled Project 921-2 will be launched as well and docked together with Shenzhou 9. Soon after that a third spacecraft, Shenzhou 10, will bring 3 astronauts to the spacestation. This can be seen as the Chinese attempt to have a permanent spacestation.

A rough plan for Moon exploration is also made. Initially orbiters should explore the moon. In 2012 we can expect to see a Chinese moon rover. In 2017 a Chinese moon sample return mission is planned. A manned landing on the moon could occur around 2024, although this might sound a little over optimistic.

Mars is another destination for the Chinese plans. In 2009 a unmanned satellite named 萤火一号 should be launched on a Russian Soyuz-2/1b rocket aiming to Mars. The Russian Phobos Grunt mission is also scheduled to launch with the same rocket. As the Russian mission saw countless delays so far it is questionable if the launch 2009 is feasible.

Longterm China already announced interest in bringing humans to Mars in the time of 2040 to 2060. A quite ambitious goal.

The Solar System will be discovered by the Chinese space program as well, however no missions have been announced into this direction.


The Chinese space program has been driven and still is driven be military goals. The swing into more scientific goals has only been a recent change. As it doesn’t make sense to send humans into space for military reasons, the human space program of China can be seen from a more scientific viewpoint. At the same time China’s space program is a program of huge propaganda as well, showing the people how powerful the Middle Kingdom is.

I appreciate the efforts of China sending people as I regard this a good way to achieve great goals. Hopefully the China will release more data, especially pictures, from its program to the public. The next big step will be in October 2008 with the next Shenzhou spacecraft.

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  1. 3 Responses to “China’s space program”

  2. I think that the recent changes in Chinese space programm were not made out of scientific reasons – I guess they were made up as prestige projects, in order to show the world that China now is able to do some more difficult engineering tasks (and to show it’s own people once more how great the gov is).

    In the 21st century, bringing men to space is not crucial for science anymore – ESA and the American NASA were both not putting much effort in manned missions anymore, as scientific the return on investment is much higher when robots are used.
    Nevertheless George W. Bush revived the manned space programme of the USA, so that a new space ship is now being developped (the space shuttle will ground in 2 years).
    It also seems that there are half-hearted efforts by the ESA to get the Aurora programm running again – the ATM was a first step towards a manned mission. But I don’t think that Europe is really interested in having a manned programm, as they are leading the unmanned commercial missons already and cooperate with Russia who’ve got the very reliable Sojus for their manned mission.

    In conclusion, China, Japan, India, Russia and USA are just setting up manned missions to gain prestige – not for commercial or scientific use.
    There is still a lot of effort needed to get a efficient project running which also offers commercial space travels and useful scientific missions. The Space Ship ONE is a first stepd towards this goal – and hopefully not the last.

    By Aremonus on Aug 2, 2008

  3. Hello Aremonus,

    For China spaceflight definitely is a question of prestige. You are 100% right.

    Then the space industry has also further impact as it is a driving force for developments for daily use. Many people who are in highschool and getting ready for university might choose a science course just because they got inspired by their national space program. The majority of those however won’t work in the space industry, but other industries need just people like these: highly educated in scientific areas.

    That being said, it is still useful to bring humans into space to convince more people to study scientific topics.

    There is another thing I’d like to mention. Some people celebrate when their country wins the Soccer World Cup. Then there are people like me. I’m not interested in soccer at all, but I do follow every space mission, like others follow their national soccer leagues.

    ESA on the other hand has one big problem. Their budget is really small compared to the NASA. As human spaceflight costs a multitude of robotic exploration, ESA should stick to the unmanned part. The descriptions of the Aurora program are published as a vision. And they will remain just that, a vision. Especially the later parts that include bringing humans to Mars.

    Have You looked at the insane amounts of fuel Space Ship One is using? Space travel is becoming big in a few decades, but it will significantly increase pollution, especially in the higher atmosphere.

    One thing that I really dislike at the moment is several nations all want to have their own launch vehicles capable of transporting humans into low earth orbit (LEO). China is the latest addition to this list. Cost could be reduced if as few rockets as possible are being developed and only one is produced in large quantities (Basics economic rule). The politicians in charge of this haven’t understood that yet.

    There is so much to talk about the space industry and space exploration, however this blog might be the wrong spot to go into the details. A good read is this forum:

    By Hendrik on Aug 2, 2008

  4. Well thanks for the link, I’m going to continue the discussion their ;)

    The point about the study is really good, especially facing European problems. Well, let’s hope some more people can be encouraged to study sciences – we don’t need more philosophers :D

    By Aremonus on Aug 3, 2008

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