Category China in Space


These early achievements took place against a background of continued turmoil. The Military Commission, which was dominated by leftists led by Lin Biao, persuaded the government and party to adopt a new five-year plan (1971-76) which had the slogan “three years catching up, two years overtaking”. This plan committed the country to a furious expansion of the space program, with eight new launch vehicles and 14 new satellites in five years (other reports speak of an average of nine satelhtes a year). Many of these projects, which most scientists considered to be unnecessary and unrealistic, got under way, though few saw the Ught of day. They disrupted existing projects and saw the commencement of several projects which later had to be abandoned. There were fresh political interruptions after the dramatic events of September 1971 when Lin Biao fled China for the Soviet Union: en route, his plane was shot down by Chinese fighters and it crashed in flames. There were purges and counter-purges of his associates in the space program. Order did not return until after the death of Mao in September 1976 and the overthrow by the military of the Gang of Four led by his wife Jiang Qing the following month.

The 1971-76 plan was scaled down to more limited objectives, the principal one being to launch a geostationary communications satellite. The emerging leader, Deng Xiaoping, presented a much revised space policy in August 1978. China was a developing country and “as far as space technology is concerned, we are not taking part in the space race. There is no need for us to go to the Moon and we should concentrate our resources on urgently needed and functional practical satellites”. The space budget was trimmed to meet more modest ambitions, falling to 0.035% of Gross National Product, traihng not only the big space powers, but neighboring comparators Japan (0.04%) and India (0.14%), too. Deng Xiaoping encouraged newer, younger, and more pragmatic engineers and managers to come forward in industry, concentrating on modernization rather than ideological struggle, although it took some time to undo the damage done to science, education, and industry by the cultural revolution.

Several months later, in October 1978, Deng Xiaoping announced the “four modernizations”: science and military technology, agriculture, education, and industry (dissidents cheekily added a fifth modernization: democracy). This began the process of opening the country not only to foreign investment and private enterprise, but also to international cooperation in science. In 1980, China joined the International Astronautical Federation, the Chinese membership body being the Chinese Society of Astronautics, whose president was Tsien Hsue Shen. China joined the International Telecommunications Union and the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Twenty years of isolation from the world space community came to an end, with visits by space experts from the European Space Agency, France, Japan, and an American delegation even toured. China hosted its first international space conferences on space in 1985. China negotiated with the United States for the use of Landsat data and purchased a ground station to receive its data the following year. By 1988, China was sending its most promising engineering graduates to courses in the MIT, from where their predecessors had been driven out in the 1950s. China joined the international committee on space research, COSPAR, in 1992.

The Chinese space program opened up within China itself. Workers in the space industry had been prohibited, on pain of extreme penalties, from telling their families where they worked and, in a practice borrowed from the Soviet Union, they were assigned mailbox numbers, their institutes never being geographically identified. The greatest challenge faced by new graduates assigned to the space industry was to actually find their future place of work, since virtually no one was allowed to tell them where it was! Likewise, the railway fine to Jiuquan had not been marked on any map. From now on, most space organizations were publicly named, identified, and listed.


Sergei Korolev, Russia’s great chief designer, once remarked that at the heart of a successful space program lay a sound rocket engine. Russian rocket engines were designated RD – (raketa dgvatel), or “rocket engine”, from -1 onward and China has followed a similar system, using the designator YF-, or yeti fadong (“liquid-type engine”). Data on Chinese rocket engines are much less satisfactory than the Russian data. China has developed a very small number of rocket engine types, but with many variants. In essence, there are four types: the YF-1 to YF-3 series used at the very beginning; the YF-20 to YF-24 series used for the CZ-2 and CZ-3; the YF-40 series used for the CZ-4; and the YF-73 and YF-75 series used for the CZ-3 upper stage (incoming engines related to the Long March 5 are discussed in Chapter 10). These rocket engines have been adapted and modified to serve the entire range of the Long March families. In addition, China has developed a small number of solid – rocket motors and minor engines.

The YF-20 engine, which dates to 1965, with its variants, has been used for the Long March 2, 3, and 4 rockets, being introduced on the Long March 2C in 1975. The YF-20 has a thrust of 70 tonnes and uses UDMH with nitrogen tetroxide as oxidizer. For the Long March 2, the Chinese clustered four YF-20s together to provide a lift-off thrust of 280 tonnes (this configuration was called the YF-21 or 20A). An improved version, the YF-20B, with 7% more thrust, was developed for the Long March ЗА, 3B, and 4 (when clustered, they may also be called the YF-21B). The YF-20B was introduced on the Long March 2D in 1992 and a single YF-20B engine is used on each strap-on booster for the Long March 3B. These are big engines, weighing nearly 3 tonnes (2,850 kg).

For the second stage, the YF-22 engine is used: it is a modification of the YF-20 and is designed to light at altitude. It was introduced as far back as 1975 on the Long

YF-20 engine series, dating to 1965 and still in use.

March 2C second stage. Later versions were called the YF-23 and YF-24 series, several with A and В sub-designators. Note that, in directories of Chinese rockets, YF-20, 21, 22, 23, and 24 designators are often seen, but they belong to the same family, the differences between them being small.

The YF-40 is the third-stage engine used on the Long March 4 rocket introduced in 1988. Third-stage engines are relatively small in size and thrust compared to the first and second stages, but they have longer burn times, in the order of 320 sec. These are small engines, 166 kg in weight, 1.2 m long, and 65 cm in diameter.

When the Long March 3 flew in 1984, China became the third country in the world to tame liquid hydrogen-fuelled upper stages after the United States (Centaur) and Europe (Ariane). Not only are hydrogen fuels difficult to master, but a complication is that the third stage must be restartable – firing once to enter Earth

Table 3.6. Long March 4





44.1 m

45.8 m


3.35 m

3.35 m


248.5 tonnes

250 tonnes


2,962 kN

2,960 kN

First stage

Engine: 4 x YF-21B Length: 24.66 m Mass: 192.2 tonnes Thrust: 302.8 tonnes Burn: 156 sec

Engine: 4 x YF-21B Length: 24.66 m Mass: 192.2 tonnes Thrust: 302.8 tonnes Burn: 156 sec

Second stage

Engine: 4 x YF-24B Length: 10.407 m Mass: 40.05 tonnes Thrust: 73.6 tonnes Burn: 127 sec

Engine: 4 x YF-24B Length: 10.407 m Mass: 40.05 tonnes Thrust: 73.6 tonnes Burn: 127 sec

Third stage

Engine: 2 x YF-40 Length: 1.92 m Mass: 15.5 tonnes Thrust: 10.2 tonnes Burn: 321 sec

Engine: 2 x YF-40 Length: 1.92 m Mass: 15.5 tonnes Thrust: 10.2 tonnes Burn: 321 sec


4.2 tonnes

4.8 tonnes to GTO

orbit, a second time about 50 min later for the transfer to geosynchronous orbit. Design of a third stage, restartable hydrogen-fuelled engine, the YF-73, began in 1965, but testing of the new designs was not completed until 1979 and, even then, the first flight test failed in January 1984. This problem must have been promptly identified and remedied, for the next mission, four months later, went perfectly. The thrust of the YF-73 liquid-hydrogen third stage was 4.5 tonnes, with a burn time of 13.3 min. An improved version, the YF-75, was introduced with the Long March ЗА in 1994 and was since used by the 3B. The YF-75 weighs 550 kg, is 2.8 m tall, and 3 m in diameter, and has a thrust of 8 tonnes. Restarting problems have, disappointingly, recurred from time to time (though such problems are not entirely absent from the other space programs, especially Russia’s).

China has developed two families of solid-rocket motor engines: the GF series and the PKM (Perigee Kick Motor). With the beginning of flights to 24-hr orbit in 1984, a new generation of solid-fuel rockets was required to carry out the maneuvers necessary to ensure that communications satellites accurately reached their final orbital destinations. The PKM was developed to complete the transfer of comsats to geostationary orbit. Built by the Haxi Chemical and Machinery Company, it is 1.7 m

in diameter, 2.5 m long, and weighs 5,978 kg (5,444 kg is propellant). The GF series was used as a final stage to get the Feng Yun 2 series into 24-hr orbit (the 729-kg GF-36) and the smaller GF-14, 23, and 23A solid-rocket engines have been used as retrorockets for the FSW 0, 1, and 2 series, respectively. The GF-15 solid-rocket motor (500 kg) was developed as the apogee motor for the Dong Fang Hong 2 comsats and the 15B for the Dong Fang Hong 2A.

Overall, Chinese rocket-engine development has been conservative, rather like in Europe, leaving cutting-edge development to the original masters of rocket-engine design: Russia. Evidence of an interest in innovation came at the Asian Joint Conference on Propulsion and Power, held in Xian in March 2012, when reports came out of Chinese interest in developing a methane engine. Exotic engines had been developed in Russia, first by Valentin Glushko’s Gas Dynamics Laboratory (the RD-301), later resumed in the Franco-Russian Ural engine development program. China began its work on electric propulsion in the 1960s, but did not progress until a pulsed plasma thruster, the MDT-2A, was first run in the 1980s and an arcjet in the 1990s.


Following the successful launch of the Long March 3, China began to offer its Long March series of launchers to the West. Little notice was taken at the time, but the situation changed when America’s launchers were grounded due to the loss of the Shuttle and problems with the Titan and Delta, while Europe’s Ariane was out of action as well.

There were several drivers of this development. First was the accession to the Chinese leadership of Deng Xiaoping. He reduced state space budgets and, in an export-or-perish drive, required the industry to find markets at home and abroad. Several space companies soon began to make consumer products, from motorcycles to refrigerators, to fund their core business. In May 1984, deputy aeronautics minister Liu Jiyuan allocated ¥300,000 (€30,000, or European Currency Units (ECUs)) for a feasibility study of providing commercial rockets to the world market,

the aim being to put up communications satellites. This was approved in April 1985 and first announced at the Paris air show that summer. China pitched its offer 15% below the then-prevailing Western prices. Several joint-venture companies were formed to develop communications: Asiasat (Asia Satellite Telecommunications Co., 1988), a Chinese-Hong Kong-British venture which later became a publicly traded company, and APT (Asia Pacific Telecommunications), trading as Apstar (1992), a Chinese-Hong Kong-Thai company, which later, with German investment, became Sinosat. A third, Chinasat, was a domestic company created by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, sometimes also called China Telecom, short for China Telecommunications Broadcast Services.

In the event, China’s first commercial launch was not a communications satellite, but a small Swedish Mailstar store-and-forward satellite, an agreement being signed as early as January 1986. The leader on the Swedish side was Sven Grahn, who was not only senior in the Swedish space agency, but an amateur radio enthusiast who had spent a lifetime following Russian and Chinese space signals, so he could not be more familiar with the Chinese space program. Eventually, Mailstar was replaced by Freja, a scientific satellite, launched with the recoverable satellite FSW 1-4 in 1992 (see Chapter 4).

The offer of the Long March was of considerable interest to Western companies trying to get their communications satellites into orbit. China set itself the initial modest target of obtaining 4% of the world launcher market. The Great Wall Industry Corporation was tasked with marketing Chinese launchers abroad and established offices in Europe and the United States. After several false starts, China signed its first agreement with Asiasat to launch an American satellite, to be called Asiasat 1, on the CZ-3.

The problem for both was that China, and the Soviet Union, were embargoed by restrictions designed to prevent them both from undercutting American prices and the intentional or inadvertent transfer of technology to China which might be used for military purposes. The Americans required any American company to get permission to launch an American satellite (or any American parts of any satellite) on a Chinese launcher. This clearly extended to any European satellite using any American parts. Granted the interdependence of the Western computer and electronics world, this effectively meant any satellite. The American embassy in Beijing at once told the Chinese government to back off, but underestimated the determination or, more likely, desperation of the launcher companies. China managed to win a contract to launch an Indonesian satellite but, when the Americans threatened to pull foreign aid, Indonesia caved in.

The Chinese were prepared to pay a heavy price to get their launcher to market and, after four years of negotiation, a Sino-American Memorandum of Agreement was signed in January 1989. The Chinese were permitted nine commercial satelhte launches for the period to 1994 – a quota extended to 11 satellites for 1995-2001, with the proviso that China would not offer prices more than 15% below Western rates. The language of the agreement was humiliating, imposing multiple commercial and security restrictions and requiring a lengthy series of commitments by China, with nothing guaranteed in return. These issues were not unique to China, for the

United States also accused Europe of undercutting American launcher prices with its Ariane rocket, but presumably the United States was not in the position to impose a comparable agreement on Europe. The Americans gave permission to China to launch Asiasat 1 in December 1989, only four months before a scheduled and penalty-laden take-off deadline. While awaiting launch, Asiasat was guarded around the clock by a team of no fewer than 18 American security guards. It duly launched in April 1990.

Asiasat was at the light end of the comsat market and new comsats coming on line were heavier. To fly the newer, heavier comsats, China developed a purpose-built heavy-lift version of the Long March, the Long March 2E (CZ-2E). Discussions were held over 1987 with the American satellite maker, Hughes, and the Australian satellite operator, Aussat (later, Optus), about how to best meet their requirements. The following year, China won a contract to launch two Hughes-made Optus satellites, with a target date of June 1990 (and penalties if it was not met), even as the 2E was still on the drawing board.

Despite its name, the Long March 2E fitted more naturally with the Long March 3 family and, like them, was launched from Xi Chang. The Long March 2E was a stretched version of the Long March 2, with more powerful engines (YF-20B) and four liquid-fuelled strap-on rockets. At lift-off, eight engines lit up simultaneously – the four core engines of the first stage and the four strap-ons – creating a tremendous noise (142 decibels). It weighed 463 tonnes, making it China’s heaviest rocket and, at the time, its most powerful. Price for a launch was €59m (or €82m for the CZ-3B). Development cost for the 2E was ¥350m, or €35m, including a new pad at Xi Chang. At the same time, China proceeded with phasing out the CZ – 3 (1.4-tonne payload), replacing it with the more powerful CZ-3A (payload 2.6 tonnes) and the even more powerful CZ-3B (the CZ-3A with the strap-ons of the CZ-2E, giving it a payload of 5.5 tonnes). The decision to build the CZ-2E was a controversial one, for it was an improvised, opportunist one, never an original part of the space program. The 2E went from drawing board to arrival on the pad in less than 18 months – an astonishing achievement for which Wang Yongzhi was later rewarded by being put in charge of the manned spaceflight program, where the CZ – 2F was in turn based on the CZ-2E.

The Long March 2E made its debut in June 1990, with mixed results, successfully putting a small Pakistani satellite, Badr, in orbit, but a simulated Optus test went badly wrong. The Perigee Kick Motor (PKM) fired in the wrong direction, back into the atmosphere, instead of into geosynchronous orbit.

The first fully successful commercial launch on the CZ-2E took place with Australia’s Optus 1 in August 1991. A hundred Australians and other visitors attended the launch in Xi Chang and the event was broadcast live on Chinese central television. Cameras switched between the rocket lifting into the early morning sky and its hopeful customers eagerly watching it climb skywards. The purpose of the Aussat Optus system was to provide radio and television services for remote areas of Australia, air-traffic control, and educational and medical services by television. China hoped that it would be the first of many Australian and then American launches.

The power of the CZ-2E is evident as it rises from the towers of Xi Chang.

Because of the failure of the Chinese PKM in the June 1990 launch, the Australians insisted on using an American kick motor, the Star 63F. When the second Optus, B-2, was launched on 21st December 1992, a cloud of gas could be noted emerging from the shroud at the top of the launch vehicle only 70 sec into the mission. The rest of the launching proceeded normally, but there was widespread consternation when it transpired that all that had reached orbit was satellite wreckage. It seems that the satellite met with a fatal accident about a minute into the mission but the shroud had contained the explosion.

There was considerable three-sided recrimination afterwards between the Chinese, the Australians, and the United States as to who was responsible. The Americans and the Western press blamed the Chinese for a faulty shroud that failed under pressure; the Chinese blamed the Americans for failing to attach the satellite to its upper stage sufficiently to withstand vibration. In the end, both the Chinese and the Americans agreed to paper over the cracks, eventually issuing a joint statement to the effect that neither the launcher nor the satellite was to blame! The Chinese recovered somewhat with two successful launches in 1994 – Apstar 1 in July (it operated until March 2006) and Optus B-3 in August, effectively replacing the satellite which had been destroyed two years earlier.

On 25th January 1995, Apstar 2, carrying another Star 63F kick motor, was lost. Fifty-one seconds into the mission, there was a catastrophic explosion and the entire launcher and satellite were destroyed. Television pictures showed the rocket crashing in an ugly billowing cloud of red, yellow, and black toxic nitric smoke. Six villagers died and 23 were injured. Mysteriously, the explosion appeared to start at the top of the rocket, not the bottom part that was actually firing at the time. Apparently, the Star 63 exploded again, but the shroud did not contain its force. The Long March was grounded while the problems were sorted out and more recriminations flew back and forth. In a repeat performance of what had happened the previous year, the next two launches went smoothly – Asiasat 2 (Hong Kong, November, with the Chinese EPKM) and EchoStar (United States, December). The causes of the two satellite losses – Optus B-2 and Apstar 2 – were never satisfactorily resolved, but the most plausible explanation, put forward by Phil Clark, was that the use of the Star 63F, for which the CZ-2E had not been designed, destabilized the rocket during the period of maximum dynamic pressure on the launcher [1]. Apstar returned to Chinese launchers again later, but its subsequent owners, APT Satellite Co., also used Russian launchers.

Then disaster intervened once more. 14th February 1996 saw the launch of a €70m American Intelsat 708 advanced communications satellite. This was the first flight of the Long March 3B, a new version of the Long March 3 able to lift a record 5 tonnes to geosynchronous orbit. Although a new version, it relied heavily on well – tested rockets: the main stages were essentially those of the Long March ЗА while the strap-on rockets had been verified on the Long March 2E. However, because the Chinese had received less than they had hoped in launch fees, they did not have the resources to make a test flight of the 3B before committing the new rocket to its first commercial mission. This decision proved calamitous.

Ground controllers were horrified as, a mere 2 sec after lift-off, the rocket began to tilt to one side, turned sideward, and exploded in an enormous bang 2 sec later, showering debris for miles around. The rocket fell 1,850 m away on a hotel near to where dignitaries were watching the launch. There was almost no one inside at the time and the ruins were later demohshed. The crash was so shattering that no large pieces of debris were ever found. It was a very visible failure, screened instantly throughout the Western world and provoking much comment about temperamental Chinese rockets. Whatever was involved in the Optus B-2 and Apstar 2 failures, this time, no one could argue but that there was a fault in the launch vehicle. The official

Asiasat 2. China’s first commercial launch was for Asiasat.

The first CZ-3B topples over, as seen on TV footage. Courtesy: US Congress.

death toll was six, with 57 injuries. The South China Morning Post reported that 100 people died when parts of the rocket fell on the village of Yi, most dying of toxic burns. These claims were strenuously refuted in the Hong Kong Standard, in which the Great Wall spokesperson insisted that most viewers had been well outside the 2­km perimeter around the pad where the rocket had exploded.

Western investors and insurers predictably later called the episode “the St Valentine’s day massacre”. Two investigating committees were appointed and international experts invited to join. The China Great Wall Industry Corporation stated that the guidance platform had gone badly wrong, causing the accident (as it was to do so only four months later on the maiden voyage of Europe’s brand new Ariane 5). With the crash of the Long March 3B, Western investors lost confidence in the Chinese launcher system and satellites due for launch on Chinese rockets became uninsurable. The queue of customers took its satellites (EchoStar 2, Asiasat 3, and Globalstar) elsewhere, mainly Russia.

China continued its efforts despite these severe setbacks. Some communications companies in the Asia Pacific region, especially those with direct links to China, had good political and territorial reasons to stay with the Chinese launchers, even if Western companies bolted. Five months after the Intelsat disaster, in July 1996, the Long March 3 put Apstar 1A into its proper orbit at 133°E, where it operated until November 2005, when it moved to 125°E, before drifting off station in January 2006. Then problems arose again: only the following month (August), a Long March 3 stranded the Hughes-built Zhongxing 7 half-way to geosynchronous orbit. Follow­ing this further failure, the Chinese instituted a rigorous program for greater quality control and launch safety, introducing international quality standards (the ISO-9000 quality mark) and a quality control company, the New Decade Institute, insisting that an international team of French, German, and British experts approve the reforms.

These measures obviously paid off, for, on the early morning of 20th August 1997, the Long March 3B eventually made its debut, lofting the Agila 2 comsat for the Philippines, a new customer. The placing of the satellite in orbit raised a few eyebrows, for the apogee was 44,500 km, far above the 36,000-km norm. Was this a bad engine burn, yet another malfunction? In fact, this maneuver marked the introduction of what is called the super-synchronous orbit, a hitherto unadvertised feature of the Long March 3B (and the ЗА as well). This is a clever technique of performing a very precise, carefully calculated, extra-thrust burn out to 44,000 km or so – one that produces a subsequent saving on the final insertion maneuver. The Agila launch was challenged by the United States, the Philippine company Mabuhay accused of undercutting the launch price agreement, but the Clinton administration did not pursue the matter further.


Applications programs were first mooted in the 1980s, such as Zi Yuan and Jiang Jing Shan’s plans for maritime observations. China has, as this chapter shows, now developed a broad range of satellites for purposes of apphcations, such as weather forecasting, Earth observations, and navigation. Most Western commentaries have focused on the degree of covert militarization within the program, from Zi Yuan as a military imaging program to Beidou, more fancifully, as a warhead targeting system. Yaogan may well be a comprehensive optical, radar, and electronic intelligence system “hiding in plain view”. The focus on covert military applications, though, risks overlooking the substantial expansion of civilian applications and the level of specialization. China started from a base of almost no knowledge, skills, or information in the applications field, as evidenced by continued use of Western – sourced data and skills right into the 2000s (e. g. Dragon). Nevertheless, over time, China filled in all the major fields of space applications: meteorology, Earth resources, maritime observations, mapping, and navigation, and has matched (and possibly exceeded) Western standards. China’s methodical approach is well in evidence, with experimental satellites followed by operational versions (e. g. Haiyang, Tansuo), ever-greater specialization (e. g. Tianhui), and micro-satellites to test new technologies (e. g. Chuangxin). The performance of quite small satellites, such as Haiyang and Huanjing, is impressive. The intelligent use of micro-satellites enabled a considerable expansion and diversification of the program at low cost. Applications satellites have led to substantial economic gains to China arising for meteorology, Earth resources, environmental protection, disaster salvage, mapping, ocean management, and public service navigation. Table 6.13 illustrates the range of operating altitudes and how extensive they have become.

From this, it is apparent that the Chinese developed the ability to carry out observational work from an ever-greater height, enabling a wider field of view to be studied from ever more specialized missions lasting ever longer. Whereas in the 1970s

Table 6.13. Operating altitudes of Chinese observation satellites.



1,200 km

(Yaogan 8, 15, 1,200 km)

1,100 km

(Yaogan 9, 1,100 km)

1,000 km

Haiyang, 960 km

900 km

Feng Yun 1, 900 km Tansuo 3/4, 800 km

800 km

Feng Yun 3, 800 km CBERS, 770 km

700 km

Tansuo 2, 700 km Yaogan 620-650 km

600 km

Huanjing, Tansuo 1/2, 600 km

500 km

FSW 0-1 to 0-4, 500 km

Tianhui, 500 km Zi Yuan, 490 km

400 km

FSW 0-5 to 0-10, 400 km

FSW area survey (3-3, 3-5)

300 km 200 km

FSW 1, FSW 2: 300 km

FSW close-look (3-2, 4-3)


1970s 1980s 1990s


and 1980s, FSW provided low-altitude observations for quite a limited period, typically two weeks, nowadays much smaller satellites can offer detailed specialized digital imaging coverage for missions of many years’ duration.

The next challenge for China is likely to be the creation of a user community – always a problem in a command economy. A strong user community has driven the standards and reach of applications programs in Europe, the United States, and other countries and, indeed, CBERS has shown the way to do this in its collaborative program with Brazil. The Roadmap 2050 proposals correctly identified this as the next challenge. In the 2010s, China began to create the infrastructure necessary to store applications data and make them accessible (e. g. the Centre for Earth Observation (CEODE), the Satellite Oceanic Application Centre, and the expansion of the China Resources Satellite Application Centre (CRESDA)). Next, as outlined by the Roadmap (Chapter 10), will come the Digital Earth Scientific Platform and the necessary supercomputing systems to make it accessible worldwide.


Despite the success of Shenzhou 4, Chinese program managers decided that an originally planned two-astronaut three-day profile was too ambitious for a first mission, so it was scaled back to one person for one day. This had happened before, in 1960, when the Soviet Union had originally planned that its first spaceflight should be for a day (in the end, Yuri Gagarin’s mission was scaled down to a single orbit).

Keeping to the wintertime launch pattern, the first manned mission was scheduled for 15th October 2003. Heralded by a sudden blast of Siberian air, temperatures fell by 8°C to 12°C. Launch towers, assembly buildings, gantries, and machinery stood against the harsh desert landscape, with the light and dark browns of the low surrounding mountains as a backdrop. It was still dark when a small bus arrived at the launch pad, heralded by five motorcycle escorts.

Now stepped forward a short, 38-year-old spacesuited man: Yang Liwei. His identity was no surprise at this stage, for his picture had already been published by the ever-indiscrete Wen Wei Po newspaper in Hong Kong. The suit was white, with blue seams, the red flag of China stitched onto his left shoulder. He carried what looked like a workman’s toolbox – but, in reality, the all-important control system for his spacesuit until he was plugged into to his cabin. Photographers were ready for him and their cameras flashed the moment he emerged. He raised his white-gloved right hand to acknowledge them, smiling in his black-and-white communications soft hat, his visor pushed back behind his neck. Right behind him were his two backup pilots, Nie Haisheng and Zhai Zhigang. They were there to take his place if for some reason something went wrong, but they must have known that the chances
of Yang Liwei changing his mind at this stage were as close to zero as made no difference.

From Suizhong in Liaoning, bom on 21st June 1965, Yang Liwei was the son of an economist father and a teaching mother; he excelled in mathematics at school. He had joined the People’s Liberation Army and then its Air Force, from whose aviation college he had graduated in 1987 and where he had accumulated 1,350 hr flying experience. Since then, he had been through endless theoretical and practical training, as well as survival training in the event that he came down far off course. Like Yuri Gagarin before him, he had made no secret of his desire to be first. Although he had set some time aside for ping-pong and basketball, he had rarely left the astronaut training center during the previous few years. He had never had the opportunity to bring his son Yang Ningkang to school and knew of his son’s teachers only by name, never personally. He rarely went to bed before midnight. He had only two weeks’ holiday a year, spent with his parents.

As he climbed down the steps of the bus, Yang Liwei could see that there were now hundreds of people assembled behind an orderly line on either side. The spacesuit is slightly awkward for walking – it is designed for sitting in a spaceship after all – and the wearer is just a little hunched, making him look shorter than his 168 cm, and it took him a couple of minutes to reach a preset standing microphone at the foot of the launch tower. But the hundreds of well-wishers applauded together as he took his final walk down to the pad in gray soft boots. The crowd comprised men, women, and schoolchildren, many in thick coats and scarves as protection against the cold but calm early morning air. Some local people were there in brightly colored traditional dress, too. They clapped and cheered, waving bouquets of flowers to wish Yang Liwei a bon voyage. Yang Liwei reached the microphone, saluted the commanding military officer, and, in a few short words, briefly reported that he was ready to fly and carry out his mission.

Now he chmbed into the elevator at the foot of the white Long March 2F rocket, which rapidly whisked him up nine floors to the top of the gantry. It was now three hours to lift-off, set for 09:00. Climbing into the cabin of his spacecraft, Shenzhou, was a complicated matter. First, grasping a rail above him, he shd on a white mattress over the sill of the spacecraft, the soft padding being necessary to make sure he did not tear his suit. By now, he was in the top module of Shenzhou. An orange – suited technician was there to pull in his legs and bring him in. Now Yang Liwei had to gently lower himself down the tunnel into the descent module below.

The descent module of Shenzhou is acom-shaped, with a porthole at either side, a tunnel in front, and instrument panels around the tunnel. The couch is individually contoured and set on springs so as to absorb a bumpy landing. Around the walls is soft padding, both to protect the astronaut in the event of bumps but also to avoid hard surfaces that might tear or damage suits. Once in his cabin, he closed the tunnel (the lever turns like an interconnecting door on a submarine). The technician closed up and evacuated the orbital module above him. He and his colleagues ran a series of tests to check both modules for airtightness. He was over 50 m above the ground and the rocket could just be felt rocking in the light wind.

Although there were two hours to go before launch, there was still much to do to prepare the rocket for flight. With Shenzhou now closed out, the gantry moved back from the top of the cabin. A rescue team of 14 people stood ready in case they were needed. If they were, the gantry could be rolled back up close to the cabin and the astronaut quickly evacuated. For this, there was an explosion-proof elevator or an escape slide and bomb-proof bunker. If the worst came to the worst and the rocket was in danger of exploding, the escape tower could be fired (the system was armed 15 min before take-off).

Over the next two hours, the gantry was pulled back and all the systems on the rocket were carefully checked. All the electric and electronic circuits were in order. The Long March 2F with storable fuels does not give any of the tell-tale signs of an impending launch, like the American Shuttle or the Russian Soyuz, where viewers can see cold liquid oxygen boiling off around the ready rocket. At 09:00, there was a dull thud beneath the rocket. The Long March 2F began to shake and the engines belched out the characteristic tell-tale orange and brown plume of the nitrogen fuels. Power built and built and, in seconds, the Long March 2F was rising slowly, ever so slowly, up its launch tower. Its rise seemed agonizingly slow as it stood out against the light blue sky. Safely some distance from the pad, the engineers and military watched, shielding their eyes; their hearts almost stopped as they watched the rocket rise. But, as the flames beneath passed the bottom of the tower, the Long March gathered momentum and could be visibly seen to accelerate. Twenty seconds after launch, sharding began to tumble from the rocket. No one had seen this on the four previous Long March 2F missions before, simply because they had all taken place at night, but the dropping of exterior shielding was a procedure familiar to the early European Ariane rockets and nothing to worry about. It was thermal weather protection blanketing to protect electronics on the interstage. Now the Long March 2F was rising ever faster, heading skyward, and could be seen bending over in its climb towards the east. The rocket had soon pitched over, a long needle with its four liquid-fuel strap-on boosters on the bottom still burning brightly. Down below, the burning engines looked ever more like a bright pulsing star as the Long March headed ever higher into the atmosphere.

Then, after two minutes, there was a sudden flash at the bottom of the rocket. The strap-on rockets had done their day’s work, had burnt out, and were now explosively separated from the main rocket. They tumbled back into the atmosphere, presumably to fall into uninhabited desert some place far downrange. The Long March 2F was soon 30 km high, outside the thickest part of the atmosphere. The

Launch of Shenzhou 5, the first daytime launch, soaring into a clear blue sky.

escape shroud was soon jettisoned, its rockets firing it clear of the cabin. Shenzhou was now exposed in the airless open. For Yang Liwei, natural light flooded in through the portholes. On Soyuz, Russian cosmonauts bring a mirror with them so that they can see the Earth recede below them, but we don’t know whether he did the same. All this time, Yang Liwei felt the vibration and roaring of the ascending rocket, the vibration (“infrasound resonance” in the official report) becoming painfully intense [9].

Thankfully, the ride became smoother as the strap-ons came off. In his hand was a chpboard pad and a pencil on a string and he noted each event in the launch sequence as it happened. Half a minute later, there was the next milestone as the main first stage fell away and the second stage took over. There was a brief moment of quiet before the second stage ignited, thrusting him back in his seat as the rocket sped for orbit. As the rocket climbed ever higher, 50 km, 80 km, 100 km, it pitched ever more over in its climb. The emphasis now was less and less on height, more on building up horizontal speed as it headed towards orbit, even though it did continue to climb – 15,000 km/hr, then 20,000 km/hr. Yang Liwei crossed over the coast of China. The Sun was ever brighter above, for it was midday down below as he headed over the Pacific. In his cabin was a small bobble on a string, which fell down towards the vertical as his rocket climbed ever higher. Back on the ground, the rocket had long disappeared from sight, leaving only a smoky trail in the high atmosphere and on the ground a sizzling launch pad, still steaming.

At 09:10, the engines of the Long March 2F died, their fuel exhausted, their job done. The second stage separated. It fell back into a lower orbit, where it began to tumble slowly. Amateur astronomers spotted it in the night sky over Matija Peme, Slovenia, only three hours later. Yang Liwei heard and felt the clunking sound of Shenzhou separating automatically, pushing it briefly forward of the cylindrical second stage. No longer was he thrust back in his seat. Now encountering weightlessness for the first time, he could see his bobble begin to float and the pencil on his checklist began to wander across his cabin. Over the blue of the Pacific Ocean, Yang Liwei was now in orbit and China had become the third country in the world to send a man into space, on 15th October 2003. Had the rocket failed to get Yang Liwei into orbit and had he splashed down in the Pacific, three ships had been on standby to pick him up. Now the ships – the Beihai 102, the De Кип, and De Hi – were stood down and told they could return to port.

Although Shenzhou was in orbit, it was important to check that it was the right orbit – was it high and stable enough for the mission to last? Second, would the spaceship’s equipment deploy properly? Signals from Shenzhou were calibrated with all the tracking data sent back to mission control. All was in order and Shenzhou was in the perfect, accurate planned orbit: 197-328 km. It was the 30th straight launch success for China in a row, with a reliability achieved only after careful preparation, endless checking, fanatical quality control, and earlier heartbreaking failures. Next, 22 min into the mission, Yang Liwei felt the vibration of the solar panels deploying on the propulsion module behind him and the orbital module in front. Signals in the cabin showed that Shenzhou could now take power directly from the solar panels and would no longer be dependent entirely on its batteries. The good news was relayed in telemetry down to the Yuan Wang 2 tracking ship in the southern ocean. Shenzhou communicated to the ground on seven frequencies: ultra­short-wave (biomedical data), short-wave (voice), S-band (telemetry), and C-band (tracking data). Television pictures were sent from the cabin using a digital imaging compression system [10].

Shenzhou had now deployed properly, was in the correct orbit, and was stable in flight. By 09:34, Yang Liwei was over the Yuan Wang 3 tracking ship in the South Atlantic. “I’m feeling good”, he relayed back by radio to the tracking ship as he passed overhead. Li Jinai, head of the manned spaceflight project, now declared that the first stage of the mission could be considered a success. At 09:42, just half an hour after it entered orbit, the launch of Shenzhou 5 was announced by the official media in Beijing. Telecasts of the launch quickly followed, beginning a day of saturation coverage in the Chinese printed and electronic media. Originally, the Chinese had agreed to a live broadcast of the launch, but lost their nerve at the last minute, but they need not have worried.

By 10:30, Yang Liwei was back over China, having flown around the world in 90 min. Had anything been evidently amiss at this stage, Shenzhou 5 could have come down on either the third or the fourth orbit. But there was no need. Yang Liwei called in to Beijing mission control and the ground told him he could now go ahead and take off his gloves. Things were going smoothly and he knew he could begin to relax. Have an early lunch and take a rest, they told him. The menu, the record shows, was sweet-and-sour shredded meat, pork and sliced chicken with eight-treasure rice including nuts, with a hot pickle from Sichuan called Zachai followed by herbal tea with some traditional medicine mixed in. The food was stickily coated to prevent crumbs from floating around the cabin. For the next two hours, he was officially resting, although, like any previous space traveler, he almost certainly spent the time looking out of his two portholes at the blues, whites, and browns of our planet by day, the sunrises and sunsets, and, by night, the lights of the Earth’s cities and the spectacle of the Earth’s weather, lightning, and storms. At 13:39, during his fourth orbit, he took out his logbook to write down his account of everything that had happened so far. Down below, his spaceship had been spotted by amateur observers crossing dark skies over Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and Washington, DC. Yang Liwei flew the spaceship manually, using its translational and rotational hand controllers to maneuver its 52 thrusters.

The rest was important, for, at 15:57, over the Pacific, Shenzhou came to a key moment in the mission. This was the time for the propulsion system to fire to make an orbital change and get the spaceship in the right orbit for landing the following morning. On the fifth orbit, the propulsion system duly fired. The bum raised the perigee so that the spaceship was now in an almost circular orbit of 331-338 km, crossing the equator at 42.4° – an orbit that covered the same ground every 31 orbits. Already, China’s first manned flight had already gone past Yuri Gagarin’s single orbit in 1961 and John Glenn’s three orbits the following year – and he had maneuvered in orbit. Still, to demonstrate the caution of the mission, he did not enter the orbital module. For some of the telecasts, he even kept his visor down.

An hour later, at 17:05, on his sixth orbit, Yang Liwei began a live telecast from Shenzhou 5. Pictures showed him smihng and waving, his clipboard and pencil drifting in weightlessness in the cabin, and clear pictures of the Earth. He unfurled miniature versions of the national flag of China and the United Nations. In a second telecast at 20:00, he talked with his wife Zhang Yumei in the mission control center. They had been married since 1990 and she was there with their eight-year-old son. She asked him about what he could see outside. The camera showed the blue Earth and one of Shenzhou’s solar panels. His young son seemed most interested in the space food. The telecasts were relayed from the tracking ships by satellite through compressed digital video to mission control in Beijing.

As he orbited the Earth, his control panels and three computers gave him up-to – date information on the progress of his mission. A world map displayed his position over the Earth’s surface. Another readout displayed altitude, speed, flight time, temperature, humidity, and the status of all systems on Shenzhou. Data were displayed in Chinese characters and alarms were read out by a pre-recorded voice, much like that of the automated voice in an airplane cockpit (pilots call her “Bitchin’ Betty”). Like Yuri Gagarin on the first space mission, Yang Liwei carried a tray of biological experiments: plant and vegetable seeds, 36 species in all, green peppers, tomatoes, and corn.

23:00 marked official sleep time. Yang Liwei had been up since early morning and needed sleep to prepare himself for the busy and dangerous re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere the next day. Passing over the tracking ship on the 12th orbit at 00:18, telemetry showed that Yang Liwei was indeed asleep and that all was well in the quiet cabin. It was not a long sleep, for Yang was awake again by 02:52, but it was enough. At 04:34 on the 13th orbit over China, ground control confirmed that they would go ahead with a landing on the next orbit. Yang Liwei acknowledged this and began preparations for coming down. In the landing area, the senior meteorologist had just issued his forecast. Wind speed would be a firm 5 m/sec, visibihty over 10 km, and temperatures -4°C to -8°C, all within acceptable limits. The landing site was the district of Dorbod Xi in Siziwang Si county, central Inner Chinese Mongolia, 100 km north of Hohhot, 41.3°N, 111.4°E, with a backup site at Alashanyouqi, close to the launcher center itself. In case things went wrong, China had taken precautions in the event of a landing badly off course. Shortly before the mission, China made an agreement with the Australian government for a search – and-rescue mission to be mounted if the yuhangyuan came down in the deserted outback.

At 05:00, Yang Liwei, now passing over South America, was approaching the moment of truth, for landing and take-off are the most dangerous moments of any spaceflight. Yang Liwei was in contact with the Yuan Wang 3 again as he approached the Namibian coastline. Nearby, China had its main overseas ground tracking station in Swakopmund, Namibia. Between the two tracking systems, they were able to apply the maximum possible surveillance to this critical stage of the mission. Shenzhou 5 was now flying backwards, its retrorockets pointed in the direction of travel, the craft carefully aligned at the correct angle to the Earth’s horizon. At 05:04, the stations confirmed that Shenzhou was in the correct position for re-entry and issued the command to proceed. At 05:36, the orbital module was jettisoned to begin its period of flight as an independent space laboratory.

At 05:38, the retrorocket system for Shenzhou 5 blasted for three minutes. It was soon clear that it had fired for the proper duration and thrust, and, at 05:44, Yang Liwei reported the bum had gone perfectly. The bum was sufficient to cut hundreds of kilometers an hour off Shenzhou’s path, taking it out of orbit. Shenzhou swept in a vast arc over Africa, Arabia, and west of the Himalayas. The shape of Shenzhou was such that it was possible to control the craft as it descended and generate a cushion of air underneath the cabin so as to steer it to a precise re-entry point. Just a minute before reaching China’s western border, at 05:59, the propulsion system was jettisoned, to burn up in the atmosphere later in a fireball over north China. The descent module was on its own now, its heat shield pointing in the direction of travel. By 06:00, the descent cabin was over western China. At 06:04, Shenzhou encountered the denser layers of the Earth’s atmosphere. The heat shield began to turn red hot and then white hot. An ion sheath of particles surrounded the cabin, cutting Yang Liwei off from contact with the ground for several minutes. Later, the Chinese admitted that mission control lost contact with him for a significant period of the descent and may not have recovered contact (although the recovery teams did).

The landing area was in Inner Mongolia, north of Hohhot, well to the east of Jiuquan, north-west of Beijing and west of the Beijing-to-Ulan Bator railway. Five recovery helicopters were already in the air, hovering like bees, ready to spot the descending cabin and rush to retrieve the astronaut. Yang Liwei was now falling through the atmosphere, the cabin coohng. He flicked the switch on to activate the parachute once the system sensed denser air.

At 06:11, at 15,000 m, out came the pilot parachute, quickly reported by Yang Liwei. “I’m still fine”, he reassured the ground on short-wave radio, “though it’s warm in here”, he added. At 06:14, he dropped the heat shield, which was no longer needed. Without its weight, the cabin would now descend more slowly. This was also necessary to expose small rockets used to cushion the final descent. Now the drogue parachute was out and the cabin’s speed had fallen from 201 m/sec to 80 m/sec. By 06:16, the large, l,200-m2-diameter main parachute was out. “Deployed normally”, reported Yang Liwei as Shenzhou 5 descended onto the dawn grasslands of Chinese Mongolia. Had the main parachute failed, a backup one would have popped out, but it was a third smaller and the landing would have been rougher. Soon he was spotted by one of the recovery helicopters. On the ground, a team of cross-country vehicles was parked in a line, ready to set off in pursuit. It was just getting daylight and they still had their headlights on. The landing was so accurate that an image of the descending Shenzhou was relayed by one of the camera crews with the landing team. “Parachute deployed” had already been signaled around the world on the internet, as space enthusiasts the world over stayed up during the night to follow the mission.

06:23: as Shenzhou 5 finally reached the ground, three small solid-fuel rockets at the base of the cabin fired for a second to cushion the last moment of the descent, sending up plumes of dust engulfing the spaceship. The Shenzhou cabin comes in at quite a pace and it is a bumpy landing without the final soft-landing rockets, as Russian cosmonauts have reported when they have not fired properly. The soft – landing rocket can also have the effect of tipping the cabin over on its side, exactly as happened this time to Yang Liwei. The parachute is then dropped, so as to prevent wind from catching it and dragging the cabin.

No one saw the precise moment of landing, but a helicopter crew radioed in at 06:24 that it had spotted the parachute on the ground and gave coordinates. The news was relayed around the world immediately. Two minutes later, a team of cross­country vehicles was on its way, bumping across the grasslands. Helicopter #3 spotted the cabin first, estimating it was about 7 km away. The crew managed to contact Yang Liwei on short wave at 06:30. Three minutes later, the first helicopter had touched down beside the cabin. Yang Liwei was still inside and their priority was to get him out safely.

Yang Liwei emerging from the cabin, victorious.

Yang Liwei getting his feet back on the ground.

It took the orange-suited rescuers only five minutes to open the hatch at the top of the descent module, now lying on its side, and get Yang Liwei out. When they opened the hatch, they could see him still strapped into his cabin, waving. They gradually lifted him out, letting him get his land legs back again after a day’s weightlessness. He slid out of the hatch onto the ground and, looking just dazed from all the attention, waved to the rescuers, journalists, and television crews. Yang Liwei had landed just before dawn, but there were good streams of early-morning light now. He had traveled 600,000 km in 21 hr 23 min and circled the Earth 14 times. Yang Liwei took off his communications soft hat and put his gloves into knee pockets. Yang Liwei is recovered and well, the helicopter team formally reported at 06:38. Years later, though, it transpired that the landing had been so violent that Yang Liwei had split his lip on his microphone, made messier by his hanging upside as the cabin keeled over, so rescuers handed him towels to clean up his bloody face. The landing point was Amugulang Ranch, Dorbod Xi, Siziwang. Liang Qi, head of recovery operations, explained that the site was chosen because of its flatness and the lack of power lines or inhabited buildings.

Yang Liwei sat down in a director’s chair to talk to doctors, journalists, and the rescue team. This done, he was brought to a big medical tent and put into blue astronaut coveralls. He was given a white scarf to keep him warm and asked to pose for photographs with his rescuers. Then he was brought away by helicopter, first for a plane journey to Beijing. Soon he talked to his wife and son in mission control.

There was warm enthusiasm for the flight across China. Whilst it may have lacked the fervid joy with which Soviet citizens greeted Yuri Gagarin in 1961, there was evidence of a great sense of satisfaction with China’s achievement. People’s Daily ran 100,000 extra copies which were quickly snapped up, as were other papers. There were demonstrations in some towns. School children drew pictures of spaceships and showed them to the press and television. Wall posters appeared, combining a mixture of twenty-first-century techno with more traditional styles of socialist reahsm; 10.2m stamps were printed in Yang Liwei’s honor. The People’s Liberation Army Daily triumphed: “For China this is the beginning and there will be no end.” China was undoubtedly heartened by the comments and praise that flooded in from political and space agency leaders the world over, for it was universally generous.

First, Yang Liwei was brought by plane to Beijing. As he came down the stairs, a band was ready to greet him. No sooner was he down the steps than he was presented with flowers and met by senior military and party officials and, once they had had their say, his relieved wife, Zhang Yumei. They were driven back to their apartment in the astronaut training center.

Weeks later, accompanied by his young son Ningkang, he opened an exhibition in Beijing of his Shenzhou 5 cabin, spacesuit, parachute, and model space food. The cabin then became part of the traveling show that went on to Hong Kong and Macau. When the cabin reached Shanghai, hundreds of thousands queued in freezing conditions to see Yang Liwei and his cabin on 24-hr exhibition. Yang Liwei later told the story of his flight to foreign audiences – travehng to the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, in 2004 to receive an award from Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine and to the International Astronautical Congress in

Valencia, Spain, the following year. He was promoted to General and put in charge of the yuhangyuan squad.

For Chinese space officials, leaders, technicians, and engineers, this was a time of relief, relaxation, and achievement. The 11-year project to put someone into space had reached its climax. Due diligence had been rewarded with its trouble-free out­come. As the official commentary put it, space travel had “long been the dream of our ancient civilization”, kept alive in stories and legends, like Chang e, the fairy who flew to the Moon, and Wan Hu who perished in a spaceship made of a kite, wickerwork chair, and fireworks.

The Shenzhou 5 orbital module contin­ued its mission long after his return. The module carried out five maneuvers to readjust its orbit between then and the end of January, concluding its scientific mission successfully in March 2004 after

152 days. First, five days after the main cabin returned to the Earth, on 22nd October, it made a small height change up to 339-347 km, its operating height, then, on 2nd November to 329-333 km, on 5th November to 343-354 km, on 11th November to 357-367 km, with further adjustments reported on 24th and 31st December 2003 and on 22nd January 2004. The module carried a science payload and a Charge Couple Device (CCD) observation camera, mounted to the exterior of SZ-5 with a ground resolution of 1.6 m. The results were transmitted digitally to the Earth, including detailed information monitoring the Sun’s magnetic field. It reportedly carried a high-resolution telescope (1.6-m resolution) and a Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectrometer for ground surveys, with data received on gamma bursts and solar flares [11]. It decayed on 30th May after 227 days.


Even as construction of the CZ-5 got under way, China astonished the space community when it announced in 2009 plans to develop a second new launcher, the Long March 6, and then a third, the Long March 7. Both were, by government decision in July 2008, allocated to the Shanghai Academy of Space Technology (SAST) in Shanghai to balance the development of the Long March 5 by CALT in Beijing. The first paper studies had been done by the 8th Research Institute as far back as 2000 and the idea was to have a lighter version of the CZ-5. In 2010, it was announced that the CZ-6 would be a “light” launcher with a payload of 10 tonnes and another new rocket, the CZ-7, would be a medium-lift launcher able to carry 10­20 tonnes. In effect, the CZ-5 would be the basis for a launcher family of small (CZ – 6), medium (CZ-7), and heavy lift (CZ-5) rockets using common modules and engines, rather like the Angara series in Russia. The approach of “launcher families” actually dated back to the Yangel design bureau in the Ukraine in the 1960s, where Mikhail Yangel conceived the idea of several versions of launchers using common components – the UR (Universalnaya Raketa or “universal rocket”). Maximizing commonality, the CZ-6 and CZ-7 will also use the new YF-100 engine. First flight dates have both been given ahead of the Long March 5 (2014-15), with the CZ-7 due in 2013 and the CZ-6 due in 2014. Lift-off mass will be 472 and 103 tonnes, while thrust will be 1,180 kN and 4,700 kN for the Long March 6 and 7, respectively.

The original strategy was for the Long March 6 to lift into orbit a weight greater than the CZ-2F, but less than the Long March 5, both stages having a single YF-100 engine. Over time, though, China began to lighten the CZ-6, shrinking it to a much smaller launcher able to lift a tonne to 700 km Sun-synchronous orbit, its two stages as small as 2.25 m but also serving as the strap-ons for the CZ-7. In appearance, it began to look more like Europe’s light launcher, the Vega, introduced in 2012.

The CZ-7 also went through a number of design evolutions. At the 2012 Asian Joint Conference on Propulsion and Power, held in Xian in March 2012, it was announced that its payload had been frozen at 13.5 tonnes to low Earth orbit and 5.5 tonnes to Sun-synchronous orbit. It would be the most powerful Chinese launcher pending the arrival of the Long March 5. According to Liang Xiaohong, deputy head of CALT, it would be used for cargo spacecraft for the space station. The rocket would have the following elements:

Core stage: two YF-100 engines, 120 tonnes each, diameter 3.35 m;

Strap-ons: four YF-100 engines, 120 tonnes each, all with diameter 2.25 m;

Second stage (H3): one 18-tonne-thrust engine, diameter 3 m.

The smaller Long March 6.

In appearance, it will look not unlike the CZ-2E or 3B. At launch, six YF-lOOs will fire together, making a tremendous noise and generating up to 720 tonnes of thrust.


There was a gap of over four years between the launch of Shi Jian 1 (1971) and the next Chinese satellite (1975). In the event, the next series of satellites, which took place before the period of openness and modernizations, raised more questions than it answered. The series comprised three successful launches and three failures during the period 1973-76. The series has been mentioned but never described in the Chinese literature. In China, it was codenamed project 701. Construction of the Ji Shu Shiyan Weixing (JSSW) satellite had begun in early 1970 (hence “70” and “1”), although we know virtually nothing of its development or history. The program is important in illustrating early interest in the military application of satellites, the role of different design bureaus, news management, and the challenge of interpretation so, for these reasons, it is covered in detail.

Ji Shu Shiyan Weixing stands literally for “technical experimental satellite”. The term Chang Kong, or “Long Sky”, has also been applied to the series and in some places has been named Chang Kong 1, 2, and 3. JSSW may have been an attempt to develop a satellite for electronic intelligence gathering, then a dominant theme in the military satellite programs of the Soviet Union and the United States. No signals were ever heard abroad, so it is presumed that they transmitted only over China. The series took place at the same time as the development of the Chinese recoverable satellite program (Chapter 4) and, in the absence of information from China, the two series were confused several times (indeed, their orbital paths were not that different). When the first launching took place, the official, indeed bellicose, announcement appeared to confirm the military thrust of the program, stating that the satellite was part of “preparations for war”. The subsequent official history refers to the importance of the satellite entering a very precise orbit and small errors in perigee were simply not acceptable. Intriguingly, this was a familiar characteristic of some Soviet electronic ocean intelligence satellites so it is possible that the Chinese series had a similar purpose. Photographs of a cone-shaped satellite in the Shanghai plant were subsequently found that may be the missing JSSW [5].

Project 701 used a new launcher, the Feng Bao (“storm”), made in Shanghai and based loosely on the Dong Feng 5 missile. Responsibility for its development was assigned to the Shanghai #2 Bureau of Machinery and Electrical Equipment even though it had never built a rocket before in its life. There appear to be several reasons for the decision to build the new rocket in Shanghai. One was probably political – it was Mao Zedong’s power base and he probably liked to allocate pet projects there; a second was the desire to build the industrial base outside the national capital – Shanghai was the most advanced industrial city in the country; and a third may have been to follow the Soviet style of socialist competition in which design bureaus were encouraged to compete so as to drive up standards.

Despite its inexperience, the Shanghai team was resourceful in mobilizing the industrial and technological resources of the city and the region, using a research institute to build the rocket’s computer, the shipyards to weld its aluminum copper alloy tanks. In only 10 months, they built the Feng Bao, 192 tonnes in weight, 33 m tall, able to put 1,500 kg into orbit, the only Chinese rocket not in the Long March series.

The Feng Bao design was more ambitious, challenging, and demanding than the Long March and some aspects suffered from its rushed production. The first two launch attempts failed (18th September 1973 and 14th July 1974), but patience was rewarded on the third attempt. On 26th July 1975, the JSSW 1 entered orbit at 183— 460 km, 69°, 91 min. The launch announcement gave the barest details about the satellite (only orbital parameters), proffering instead a weighty political commentary on the current state of development of the proletarian revolutionary line. The 100-kg JSSW 1 decayed after 50 days in orbit, crashing into the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean on 14th September 1975.

JSSW 2 entered orbit on 16th December 1975. This time, the launch announce­ment did not even give the orbital parameters, instead providing more appropriate information on the struggle against Lin Biao and Confucius. JSSW 2 flew 70 km lower than JSSW 1 (186-387 km, 69°, 90.2 min), burning up in the atmosphere after only 42 days. JSSW 3 came nine months later, on 30th August 1976, flying much further out than its predecessors (198-2,145 km, 69.2°). Like its two predecessors, it weighed 1,110 kg. The launch announcement gave even fewer details about the satellite (only the date), paying more attention to its political significance (this satellite marked the struggle against Deng Xiaoping and the right deviationists). JSSW 3 decayed in 817 days. None of the three satelhtes maneuvered in orbit.

The final JSSW launch took place on 10th November 1976, but it never reached orbit. The JSSW program then closed. This may have been because it did not achieve the intended results. Officially, they were technology test satellites, but it is not clear what technology was tested or how it was subsequently applied. Enquiries about them meet with cagey responses even to the present day. There have been two occasional glimpses of what the missions might have been. American aerospace experts visiting Shanghai Huayin Machinery Plant in 1979 were shown a domed cylinder 2.5 m tall, 1.7 m in diameter, weighing 1.2 tonnes, with 1 x 2-cm solar cells. They were told that China had launched three of them, each with 10-day missions – which fits the JSSW profile – but no more. A tantalizing slide along these lines was presented by a Chinese official giving a lecture in Stockholm in 1992. Many years later, the series remains obscure, the Western consensus being that their probable purpose was electronic intelligence. UnUke the case of the Soviet Union, where hitherto obscure missions have come out into the open through the histories of the design bureaus, this has not been the case in China. JSSW must have been important, for six were launched, even though only three reached orbit. The JSSWs set a standard for mystery, for later subsequent military missions such as the Yaogans and Shi Jian 6 and 11 series (Chapters 6 and 7) were to prove no less tantalizing.


So, just how reliable are Chinese rockets? Tables 3.7 and 3.8 list the record of Chinese launch failures and stranded satellites since the start of the program. Table 3.8 lists failures by rocket type, dividing them into failures to reach Earth orbit and failures to reach final geostationary orbit (strandings).

Table 3.7. Chinese launch failures.

Launch failures

18 Sep 1973

Feng Bao

Ji Shu Shiyan Weixing

Second-stage failure

14 Jul 1974

Feng Bao

Ji Shu Shiyan Weixing

Second-stage failure

5 Nov 1974

CZ – 2A


First-stage failure

10 Nov 1976

Feng Bao

Ji Shu Shiyan Weixing

Second-stage failure

28 Jul 1979

Feng Bao

Shi Jian

Second-stage failure

21 Dec 1992

CZ – 2E

Optus B-2

Satellite broke up at 51 sec

25 Jan 1995

CZ – 2E

Apstar 2

Exploded at 70 sec

14 Feb 1996

CZ – 3B

Intelsat 708

Failed at 2 sec

18 Aug 2011


Shi Jian 11-4

Second-stage failure

Stranded satellites

29 Jan 1984


Shiyan Weixing

Loss of thrust at 3 sec

28 Dec 1991


Shiyong Tongbu Tongxin Weixing 5

Third-stage failure at 58 sec

29 Nov 1994


Zhongxing 6 or 6A

PKM failure, reached GEO, abandoned

18 Aug 1996


Zhongxing 7

Third-stage failure

Table 3.8. Chinese launch failures by rocket type.

Totals Fails

Reliability Notes











0% First mission failure, redesigned as CZ-2C




97% First loss, 2011














Three stranded on third stage




One stranded on third stage




95% First launch loss













To 30 June 2012. Launchers still in service appear in italics.

There has always been a strong emphasis on quality control in the Chinese space


Thus, over the period from 1970 to 2011, China had nine outright launch failures out of 173 attempts (giving an overall 95% reliability rate); but there were four further instances in which the insertion into geosynchronous orbit was either wholly or partially unsuccessful. As may be seen, five of the launch failures took place during the first 10 years of the program, when incidents of this kind were most likely. The two Long March 2E failures of 1992 and 1995 were contentious, with the customer insisting on using his own final stage, which may have contributed to the accident. Three rockets were lost on their maiden flights – the Long March 2A, the Feng Bao, and the Long March 3B – and maiden flight losses generally account for a third of all first-time launching failures worldwide, so this outcome is well within international norms. Indeed, India continued to experience problems in introducing its Geo Stationary Launch Vehicle (GSLV), with two failures in 2010. What is more relevant in judging rehability is reliability in recent years: from 1996 to 2011, China had 106 straight launch successes in a row, in Une with the best performance of its leading rivals (e. g. Europe’s Ariane 5).

The most likely failure point is not a rocket blowing up in the early stage of a

mission, but in the final stage of reaching 24-hr orbit – a feature of other space programs. It has still frustrated the Chinese that these problems have emerged in a program that has always had a strong commitment to quality control and testing. Because Chinese space budgets are restricted, the program can afford exploding rockets and satellites breaking down much less than others. Each launch costs at least ¥10m, leaving aside the value of the payload. Accordingly, there is a strong emphasis on quahty control and rigorous ground testing, considerable resources being so invested. The Chinese have introduced a “testing pyramid” of checking individual components, combined parts, and each system as a whole.


Barely had the Long March 3B triumphantly returned to flight than China became embroiled in an acrimonious dispute with the United States – one heralding a long period of difficult relations that persists to the present. In June 1998, the House of Representatives voted 409:10 to set up a nine-strong special committee to investigate the transfer of space technology to China and appointed as chairperson California Republican Christopher Cox. The investigation arose from rising concerns that China had taken advantage of its contacts with the American space industry to acquire information useful for the construction and targeting of ballistic missiles and specifically that the satellite companies had insufficiently protected their satellites in transit to the launch pad. Hughes satellites used advanced technology arrays that could be used for electronic signals gathering, so there was perceived to be a high risk of technology transfer.

The setting-up of the investigation prompted bitter but largely inconclusive debates in Washington. Strictly speaking, the debate revolved around whether China was engaged in spying, obtaining classified information, applying it to an aggressive military rocket program, and compromising security-slack American companies in the process. In practice, the debate was a proxy for a broader political debate about American pohcy towards China and whether that should be one of containment (as it was prior to 1972), one of varying degrees of engagement (as it was under Nixon, Reagan, and Bush), or one of hostihty and confrontation. To complicate matters further, American commercial launcher companies stood to gain from the revoking of satellite export licenses to China. By contrast, the satellite manufacturers wished to deliver satellites on orbit to their customers at the lowest possible price: Chinese prices were much lower – but their lobby was quite weak in comparison. The picture was unusually partisan, for launcher companies were reported to make campaign donations to the Republicans and the satellite companies to the Democrats. From 1994, President Clinton had faced a hostile Republican Congress under Newt Gingrich which eventually impeached him. In the mid-1990s, the Republicans ran a spectacularly successful campaign to reshape China policy – one which endures to the present [2].

Cox’s report was massive, with 11 chapters covering missiles, satellites, computers, industry, and insurance. He painted a lurid picture of malevolent Chinese espionage going back to the day Tsien Hsue Shen fled the United States for Communist China, allegedly with American rocket blueprints. Although Tsien Hsue Shen had never been convicted of spying, Cox now determined that the charges against him were true. According to Cox, the Chinese had used, over decades and in a systematic way, fair means and foul, neutral scientific conferences, licensing arrangements, dual use military-civilian technologies, and straightforward spying to ferret out information on nuclear technology, computers, rockets, submarines, and atomic bombs. The satellite companies were attacked for exceeding the terms of their export licenses and carelessly giving away information that would enable China to improve the guidance systems of ballistic missiles – “treachery”, according to one congressman. In trying to fix the fairing failure that had caused the loss of the two CZ-2E rockets, the company concerned (Hughes) gave the Chinese information and advice that would help them in the development of warheads. When the Long March 3B exploded, the Chinese kept the Americans away from the crash site for five hours while they ransacked the American debris, stealing the encrypted chips on

Preparing a satellite for launch at Xi Chang. It was at this stage that the Americans believed that it was vulnerable to interference. Courtesy: US Congress.

the lost Intelsat 708, so it was alleged. Even though the Cox report was full of inaccuracies and errors, the inflammatory charges stuck.

The Cox report relied heavily on the “dual-use” argument, which was that information obtained for legitimate civilian purposes could equally be used for military: rocket guidance systems designed to put comsats in the right orbit could equally target nuclear warheads, for example. The concept of dual use is something which the Chinese understand. During the debate on the adoption of the manned space program, when arguments raged about whether China should prioritize military development or civilian science, Deng Xiaoping intervened to argue that technology should serve both. Such dialectical solutions to political problems were not uncharacteristic of the leadership, but did not necessarily mean a systematic campaign to obtain such technologies from abroad by deception.

Even before the report was published, the Congress made up its mind. It did not ban the export of satellites to China outright but, reclassifying them as munitions of war, transferred responsibility for their licensing from the Department of Commerce to the Department of State, to ensure that defense considerations were uppermost in licensing decisions, rather than trade. Comsats were put on what was called the United States Munitions List (USML), making them weapons of war and unexportable, later systematized as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). The congressional decisions nevertheless had the politically desired effect of slowing satellite trade with China to a standstill. The Department of State did not have sufficient officials to process export licenses, so approvals slowed to waiting periods of 18 months or more, making flying satellites on Chinese launchers an unattractive proposition. Any export worth over $50m to China also had to get congressional approval in any case. Three Western satellites were still manifested to fly on the Long March at this stage and their customers quickly understood that if they were going to reach orbit, it would not be via China. The Long March 3B missions in 1997 were the last Western communications satellites launched by China

The main pad at Xi Chang. The Cox report effectively grounded the use of China’s launchers for commercial Western satellites. Courtesy: Cindy Liu.

for some time and the Long March 2E was never used again. The two satellite manufacturers, Hughes and Loral, were pursued through the courts and put under extreme pressure to admit liability, and they eventually made settlements with the Department of Defense. In the aftermath, Hughes, which went as far back as Howard Hughes in 1934, was taken over by Boeing and Loral bankrupted.

The Cox report had a long-term, venomous effect on American-Chinese relations. When the world space congress took place in Houston, Texas, in October 2002, the American government barred half the Chinese representatives from attending, either refusing visas or putting other bureaucratic obstacles in their way. Those who did attend were searched or closely followed by a dozen FBI agents hired to mind them. The head of the Chinese delegation, Luan Enjie, the director of the China National Space Administration, was left stranded on the Canadian border, forlornly awaiting a visa, and eventually returned home. It got worse. Allegations were made that China was a serial proliferator to hostile governments, such as North Korea, lased American satellites so as to blind them, and even mounted a cyberattack on NASA so as to exfiltrate data on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. According to the National Security Division of the Department of Justice, Chinese spying was extensive. The Great Wall Industry Company was sanctioned in 2006 for supplying equipment to Iran, these sanctions being eventually lifted in summer 2008. Its assets were frozen by the US federal government and it was forbidden from doing business with American companies. The lifting of the sanctions followed commitments to monitor its trading activities more closely and not to have any dealings with countries considered prohferation risks, like Iran.

The impact of Cox became evident in so many ways. When China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, visited the United States in 2004, he did so as a private guest and NASA could have no formal contact with him. In February 2008, a 72-year-old Californian and Rockwell engineer, Dongfan Chong, was indicted for passing technical information about the Shuttle to China, even though it was an unclassified program dating to the early 1970s. When the Chinese approached NASA about the possibility of having some experiments fly on the International Space Station (ISS), one leading congressman was having none of it and was quoted by the press as saying that he would not tolerate “a bunch of Nazis running around our space station”. When NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe was later asked about cooperation with China, he told journalists that he was happy to cooperate, but, he added stiffly, was bound by the rules laid down by the State Department.

The main consequences for China were not a highly visible diplomatic and media exchange, but commercial. As a result of the tighter export restrictions, a series of customers walked with their satellites, such as Atlantic Bird and Protostar, simply because they had American components. The Cox report had the desired effect: Chinese revenues from launching satellites fell from $148m in 1997 to $23m in 1999 and nil for each year 2000-05 in a global market worth between $1 bn in a weak year and $2.7bn in a good one [3].

One commercial area was spared. China was successful in 1995 in negotiating a deal with the Motorola corporation. It booked a series of Long March 2C launches to low Earth orbit for 22 of its revolutionary new global communications system of

Iridium satellites (the full system was 66 satellites). Iridium was a mobile phone system that by-passed masts, messages being passed on from one low-flying satelhte to another until it was downloaded to the appropriate point on the far side of the world. The actual phone, though, was quite large at a time when ordinary mobile phones were fitting into ever-smaller pockets.

The Long March 2C was adapted with a special dispenser (SD) for the Iridium system, able to launch Iridiums in pairs, and was renamed the CZ-2C-SD. Over 1997-9, China launched its Long March 2C-SDs six times, putting into orbit 12 Iridiums from Taiyuan. Everything went completely smoothly – until the Iridium project collapsed in bankruptcy in 1999. Ironically, granted the political exchanges over security, the Chinese-launched satellites were then taken over by the Department of Defense for its military communications network. Iridium’s other legacy was visual: although the Iridium satellites were not particularly large (between 650 and 670 kg in mass), they had a big solar panel, which, as it turned in orbit, created a bright 3-4-sec flash frequently visible from the ground in evening skies to astronomers and casual skywatchers. They became known as “Iridium flares” and watching them has amused many an amateur astronomer. The launches in the series are Usted in Table 5.4.

Table 5.4. Iridium series.

Demonstration Iridium 42, 44 Iridium 51, 61 Iridium 69, 71 Iridium 3, 76

Iridium 11 A, 20A Iridium 14A, 21A

All on CZ-2C-SD from Taiyuan.


The see-saw battle over China policy continued unabated between the White House and the Congress. Neither NASA nor the American scientific community had a particular axe to grind with China, while the international partners of the United States in space exploration did not share the same problems of doing business with China.

As far back as 1997, astronauts Shannon Lucid and Jerry Ross had visited China, but it was a private visit to a scientific conference. In the period immediately after Cox, anything more would have been impossible. The first NASA visit to China, which followed persistent Chinese invitations, came in September 2006, led by NASA administrator Michael Griffin. The six-person delegation included the head of space operations, William Gerstenmaier, and, for the second time, astronaut and Mir veteran Shannon Lucid, who had been born in and spent some of her youth in

Shanghai. Their five-day itinerary included space facilities in Beijing (the Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST) and the Beijing National Satellite Meteorological Centre) and Shanghai (Academy of Sciences Technical and Physical Research Institute, inspecting Chang e instruments) and originally included Jiuquan launch center (but the Americans declined when they learned they could only see the launch pads). The visit was permitted by the White House and State Department on the basis that it was exploratory, focused on scientific cooperation, and that discussion on participation in the ISS was off-limits (as a result, there was no visit to manned spaceflight facilities). Even then, there was congressional criticism of the visit to “an enemy”. The only concrete result was an agreement on data sharing from the forthcoming lunar missions of both sides, the Chang e and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. A second meeting took place two years later in July 2008 at deputy director level, where they agreed to establish a working group on Earth science.

Prospects for reconciliation brightened when Barrack Obama became president in January 2009, although it was clear from the start that both commercialization and the ISS would be off-limits – there simply was not the congressional support for either. On 22nd September 2009, two American astronauts, Fred Gregory and Tom Hendricks, visited China, to be entertained by astronauts Yang Liwei and Zhai Zhigang and others in training. The visit was organized by the non-governmental Space Foundation, thereby avoiding political comphcations for the administration. The American group was brought to visit CAST and was shown, in assembly, Tiangong, Shenzhou 8, and Chang e 2.

In November 2009, President Barack Obama signed an agreement with President Hu Jintao in Beijing formally agreeing cooperation in space science, human spaceflight, and space exploration. In October 2010, NASA administrator Charles Bolden visited China, followed by an industry delegation organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Bolden was welcomed inside the control center in Jiuquan, not reached by Griffin. Later, in summer 2011, the Obama administration sent proposals to the Congress for a unified licensing regime to operate through the Department of Commerce – one that would include commercial satellites and ultimately make it easier for satellites to fly on Chinese launchers.

Relations with China nose-dived once more in spring 2011 when congressman Frank Wolf, chairperson of the house committee for commerce, justice, and science, successfully inserted an amendment into the federal budget to ban all contact between NASA and the Chinese.1 He had long gone on the record as saying that

The text is: None of the funds made available may be used for NASA or the Office of Science and Technology to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement or execute a bilateral policy, program, order or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese owned company unless such activities are specifically authorized by a law enacted after the date of enactment of this devision. The limitation shall also apply to funds used to effectuate the hosting of official Chinese visitors at facilities belonging to or utilized by NASA (minor editing for purposes of brevity).

NASA had no business cooperating with China. President Obama signed the budget because negotiations on it had proved extremely problematical and led to a stand-off between the Congress and the White House that went right to the wire, with the federal government coming to within hours of closing down. The Wolf clause, as it was called, not only prohibited NASA from any collaboration with China or Chinese companies, but prevented the use of funds to host Chinese visitors at NASA facilities. An immediate consequence was that Chinese journalists, who had arrived at Cape Canaveral to watch the launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour with an experiment that included Chinese scientist Samuel Ting, were sent packing. Ting was a Nobel physics prize winner and a contributor the Alpha Magnetic spectrometer being launched by Endeavour, one of the most ambitious scientific projects on the ISS.

Space science

Despite having strong backing from the start, especially through the leadership of Zhao Jiuzhang, science has been a much lower priority than applications in the Chinese space program. The main early textbook of Chinese space science, Hu’s Space Science in China (1997, CRC Press), as well as other published sources (COSPAR reports, China Journal of Space Science), shows that, in the beginning, China relied heavily on secondary analysis of open-literature European, Japanese, and American missions, such as Exosat and Yohkoh. There has been only one dedicated science program in the Chinese space program as a whole – the Shi Jian series – but some of its missions have been used for non-scientific purposes. China also ran a successful mission with Europe – the Tan Ce, which is also discussed here. The Chinese appear to be well aware of their need to increase scientific activities, for many new science missions are planned. Space science has also found a place in the recoverable satellite program (Chapter 4), manned (Chapter 8), and deep-space programs (Chapter 9), where it is reviewed separately.