Category China in Space


The first attempt to launch a recoverable Earth satellite on the Long March 2 took place on 5th November 1974 and was a disaster. The rocket had barely lifted off before it began to sway from side to side and had to be destroyed in a fireball by the

FSW being readied for launch at Jiuquan.

range safety officer. The wire from the gyro to the control system had fractured – so it was later determined – and the control system had no basis for stabilizing the rocket. A year-long campaign to drive up quality was so extensive that the improved rocket was given a new designation: the Long March 2C.

The second attempt was made on 26th November 1975, when the first FSW 0 was launched into orbit from Jiuquan. Seven seconds after lift-off, the rocket turned towards the south-east. After 130 sec, the first-stage engine shut down. The verniers on the second stage ignited, explosive bolts fired to separate the two stages, and the first stage fell to the ground over uninhabited parts of Gansu. The second stage lit up, while small verniers continued to fire for a further 64 sec as the rocket coasted upward towards an orbital insertion point at 179-km altitude, 1,800 km downrange.

Due to a loss of pressure of the gas orientation system, it was decided to bring the first FSW home after only three days. As retro-fire approached on the 47th orbit, helicopters were scrambled to watch the cabin come in. The return to the Earth was problematical, the cabin being badly burned and approaching far from the originally intended spot. Although observers had been scattered on the mountaintops of Sichuan, no one saw a thing but, in Guizhou, four coal miners at lunch in their canteen were startled to spot a red-hot ball falling from the sky and crashing into trees. They found a blackened hulk in a crater. One of them threw a stone at the smoldering object and it bounced off with a metallic clang. The miners called the authorities. FSW was way off course and the cabin was very badly charred, indications of a less-than-perfect re-entry – but China had succeeded in recovering a capsule at the first attempt, like the Soviet Union many years earlier (the US experienced a dozen failures).

The Chinese designated the second set of missions the FSW 1 series, so this series was retrospectively but oddly named the FSW 0 program, the individual missions being numbered 0-1, 0-2, 0-3, and so on. Following the re-entry problems experienced with FSW 0-1, the cabin was redesigned, which took a year. The heat shielding material XF was extended to those parts of the cabin that had been badly burnt on the first mission. The second mission, in December 1976, achieved the landing accuracy intended. At headquarters, a plotting map marked the projected descent point while loudspeakers relayed the latest reports. Four helicopters were scrambled. A sonic boom from the returning cabin rumbled through the valleys of Sichuan. Sharp skywatchers noticed a black dot hurtle in from the north-west, splitting in two. One was the discarded heat shield, which was eventually found beside a road. The other was the cabin. Once the timer activated the parachute, the cabin could be seen gently descending, ending up in a vegetable garden on the side of a hill. One of the four helicopters found a flat spot 100 m away. The crew jumped out, mounted guard, began inspection, and removed the precious film. The third mission of the recoverable FSW satellite took place in January 1978 and was also successful; the post-flight announcement confirmed that remote sensing tests had been carried out.

There was a gap of over four years before the fourth mission appeared, the principal innovation being that on-orbit lifetime was extended to five days and new charge-couple device cameras were mounted to test the possibihties of transmitting

FSW returning to the Earth, seen against the mountains of Sichuan.

FSW landed and turned on its side.

Retrieval by a Mil-type helicopter. Large crowds have gathered on the hillside.

data in real time. FSW 0-4 appeared in September 1982 and further missions followed in August 1983, September 1984, October 1985, October 1986, and August 1987 (FSW 0-9). The charge-couple device transmissions were declared to be successful. The October 1985 mission took part in a general territorial survey of the land mass of China. FSW 0-8 was distinguished by coming down in a small inland lake, thus making it the first splashdown in the Chinese space program, although the lake concerned seems to have been thankfully quite shallow. The 1984-86 missions were land surveys taking more than 3,000 pictures using wide-angle cameras. It is difficult to assess the quality of photographs returned to the Earth by the early FSW imaging systems. Although the Chinese have published photographs of China taken from space, the satelhtes concerned have never been identified and, in some cases, American pictures have been used. Years later, the Chinese claimed that the FSW series had returned good-quahty, broad-scale survey images that had made an important contribution to mapping, land use, forestry, water resources, and problems of soil erosion.

FSW 0-9, the last of the early series, broke new ground, being the first mission to fly microgravity experiments and biology tests. Seven materials processing experiments with gallium arsenide semiconductors were flown, for the first time. FSW 0-9 was also the first to fly a Western commercial payload, carrying two small (15-kg) microgravity experiments for the French company Matra. The experimental boxes were handed back to Matra 10 days after recovery: one of them involved the testing of food growth and algae in orbit. A Chinese microgravity experiment was

Larvae flown into space on FSW missions.

Silkworms – the fatter space ones compared to the Earth control specimens.

carried, involving the smelting and re-crystallization of alloys and semiconductors. It is not clear whether the final FSW had any remote sensing role at all or whether it was devoted entirely to microgravity experiments. In the course of 1987-88, no fewer than 144 microgravity experiments were carried out for China, the German space agency, DFVLR, now the DLR (Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft und Raumfahrt), and the French company Matra [2]. Silkworms were carried into orbit in an experiment devised by Yang Tiande. The results were dramatic, with development of the embryo

two days more quickly than on the ground, a 50% reduction in hatching rates, the silkworms being 6% shorter, but the silk produced in orbit being longer, neater, and more reliable. Overall, the life cycle of the silkworm was two to three days faster in orbit. His experiment was repeated in 1992 on the longer mission of the Russian satellite Bion 10, which saw successful cocooning, evolution into moths, mating, and the laying of eggs, and on Bion 11. Cocoon weights were higher than the ground control sample. Seeds that took hits from cosmic rays grew faster and flowered earlier. Tomatoes had notable DNA mutation [3].


Despite the interest of Zhao Jiuzhang in the space environment, dedicated spacecraft were slow to emerge. The first space environment program, started in 1988 and called Meridian, was ground-based using 15 locations, including Zhongshan base at the South Pole, and later extended to sounding rockets. Europe offered a new opportunity. China and Europe had first agreed a cooperation program in 1980 (Chapter 3), which took concrete form 12 years later when China made arrange-

ments with the European Space Agency to take data from the Cluster project, an upcoming major venture with four satellites to study the Sun’s interaction with the Earth’s magnetosphere. China may have spotted an opportunity to participate in an international scientific program at relatively low cost and, in 1997, China proposed its own complementary project, Doublestar, called Tan Ce or “explorer” in Chinese. A feasibihty study concluded in 1999 and the program was approved by the Chinese government in 2000, leading on 9th July 2001 to an agreement in Paris with the European Space Agency. Cluster was originally to fly in 1996, but the probes were blown apart when Europe’s Ariane 5 exploded on its maiden mission. The backup models were taken out of storage to fly into orbit on the Russian Soyuz in summer 2000, so Tan Ce was very timely.

The notion of multiple satellites to explore the magnetosphere was well established, the main example being the Russian Interball project in which two sets of satellites had explored the magnetosphere from 1994 to 1995. Like Interball, China’s Doublestar system also comprised two satellites – hence the title “Double­star” – and proposed, using similar instruments, that their findings be cross – referenced to those of Cluster. Doublestar was a complementary mission insofar as the Chinese planned to reach regions of the sky inaccessible to the Cluster probes and build up a three-dimensional picture. Tan Ce 1 was originally to orbit out to 8 Earth radii, but Chinese scientist Zuyin Pu proposed that be lengthened to 12 Earth radii so as to extend the Cluster data. Their orbits were synchronized in such a way that all six satellites would, from time to time, be in the same line to observe solar activity.

The Doublestar mission design was for a first, equatorial satellite concentrated on the Earth’s magnetic tail, while the second, polar satellite checked out the magnetic poles and the resulting auroras. The mission aimed to improve scientists’ knowledge of magnetic storms which can upset communications, radar, and navigation systems on the Earth. It was anticipated that each mission would last a year, this short length determined by the damage resulting from regular passage through intense radiation belts. The European Space Agency contributed a modest €8m to the mission in return for four hours a day of data over the planned 18 months of the missions. The instrumentation is detailed in Table 7.4.

These were small satellites, about 350 kg in weight, 1.2 m high, 2.1 m in diameter, with a solar array of 6.33 m2 able to generate 280 W, with a design life of 12­18 months. Ground receiving stations were configured to receive data in Beijing, Shanghai, and Villafranca, Spain, while data centers were established in Beijing, China; Toulouse, France; Noordwijk, the Netherlands; Didcot, Britain; and Graz, Austria. The program got under way very quickly, despite interruptions from the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) medical emergency.

The equatorial satellite was launched first, lifting off from Taiyuan on a Long March 2C on 29th December 2003, broadcast on Chinese TV. It entered a highly elliptical orbit of 570-78,948 km, the furthest orbit ever achieved by China, inclination 28.5°. One boom did not deploy but this did not have a large negative impact. It made its first observations on 21st January 2004, a 6.1 solar flare. The next day, 12.6 Earth radii out, it noted that the pressure of the solar wind had

Table 7.4. Tan Ce instruments.

Both spacecraft

Fluxgate magnetometer


Plasma electron current experiment


High-energy electron detector


High-energy proton detector


Heavy-ion detector


TC-1 equatorial/ tail

Active space potential controller Austria

Hot-ion analyzer France

TC-2 polar

Energetic neutral atom imager Ireland

Low-frequency electromagnetic wave detector China

Tan Ce instrument testing. Courtesy: Susan McKenna-Lawlor.

increased by five times. Tan Ce 2 was duly launched on 25th July 2004, entering a somewhat different orbit, of 560-38,278 km, 90°, circling the Earth every 7.3 hr. By operating with Cluster, data could be collected from six data points. In August

2004, for example, Tan Ce 1 and 2 were in the trapped region behind the Earth, while the four Cluster satellites were further behind in the neutral sheet. In February

2005, by contrast, Tan Ce 1 was on the sunward side, Tac Ce above the Earth at the cusp, and Cluster in the magnetosheath.

The initial mission lasted a year to August 2005. By May 2006, ground controllers had received 175 GB from Tan Ce 1 and 145 GB from Tan Ce 2. Tan Ce l’s backup attitude controller failed during a big magnetic storm, but ground controllers were able to keep the spacecraft under control. Both missions were extended to September 2007, the official mission termination point. Tan Ce 1 decayed on 14th October 2007. Tan Ce 2 was lost in August 2007 but, to some surprise, was recovered that November.

The Tan Ce and Cluster missions led to at least 1,000 scientific papers. The International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) conferred the prestigious Laurels for Team Achievement Award on the Double Star/Cluster Team for providing unprecedented measurement capability and discoveries in geospace. The main fields covered by the two spacecraft were geomagnetic storms; magnetospheric sub-storms;

This shows the two Tan Ce satellites, though they flew far apart. Courtesy: ESA.

magnetic reconnection; the interaction of the solar wind with the magnetosphere and ionosphere; changes in the radiation belt, the ring current, and the plasmasphere; the plasma sheet; geomagnetic pulsations; space plasma; and the magnetosheath, magnetopause, cusp, and polar cap.

The first results of the mission were presented at a symposium on Cluster and Doublestar in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, in September 2005, which took in the results of 21 simultaneous magnetopause crossings. The initial scientific results from Tan Ce were:

• they confirmed the theory of magnetic reconnection in the Earth’s magneto­sphere; they found multiple reconnection sites and flux ropes 6.3 Earth radii out in the Earth’s fragmented magnetotail; Flux Transfer Events (FTEs) were noted at the points of reconnection, speeding at between 170 and 250 km/sec;

• they discovered 140 ion density holes in the solar wind upstream of the bow shock, several thousands of kilometers apart, in upstreaming particles;

• Tan Се 1 detected cracks in a neutron star crust during a starquake;

• they found density holes ahead of the bow shock;

• ultra-low-frequency waves made the magnetic field lines wobble; and

• low latitude is the best place for ultra-low-frequency waves to assist solar wind particles to penetrate the magnetopause [6].

Later, two detailed mission reports were issued [7]. The principal highlights were:

• Tan Се 1 recorded 516 tailward flow events at between 7 and 13 Earth radii and found eight magnetic flux ropes;

• individual magnetic storms were studied in detail, such as the “Halloween storm” of 31st October 2003 and the violent storm of 21st-22nd January 2005 (mach 5.4); Tan Се 1 observed a sub-storm on 12th October 2004, noting low-density, high-temperature ions originating from the ionosphere and flowing along the magnetic field – observations matched with the American Geotail;

• two oxygen-rich Bursty Bulk flows (BBFs) were observed during the magnetic storm of 8th November 2004;

• Tan Се 1 measured bursts of flows from the Sun, typically 48-103 sec during storms, their velocity (rising from 390 km/sec to 520 km/sec), and ion densities (ranging from 0.14 cm-3 to 0.28 cm-3);

• Tan Ce 2 observed 14 dawn chorus events in November 2004, the outbreak of radio noise associated with solar storms near the equatorial plane and their spreading to the mid and higher latitudes; and

• the polar spacecraft found vortex-like plasma flows at the boundary of the outer radiation belt and the ring current, going in opposite rotational directions.

FTEs were a feature of particular interest. Between February and April 2004, Tan Се 1 detected 27 FTEs, mainly at low latitudes, moving along the sides of the magnetosphere into the magnetotail, this time being matched with Europe’s Cluster spacecraft. Individual FTEs that affected both the four Cluster spacecraft and Tan Се 1 were studied, such as the 10-min FTE of 13th March 2004, enabling the profiling of an individual event in extraordinary detail. The typical duration of an FTE was measured: 130 sec.

A scientist who won particular recognition for his part in the mission was Zuyin Pu, who was awarded the 2010 COSPAR Vikram Sarabhai gold medal for his work on the anti-parallel reconnection of the magnetosphere at low and high latitudes, magnetic nulls, and energy transport from the solar wind to the magnetosphere, generating micro-pulsations [8]. Another was Susan McKenna-Lawlor of Space Technology Ireland, located on the campus of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, who was responsible for Tan Ce 2’s NeUtral Atom Detector Unit (NUADU – the name of a Celtic warrior). NUADU was designed to monitor the ring current during geomagnetic storms and data were received up to mission end.

Tan Ce results: the ring current (right). Courtesy: Susan McKenna-Lawlor.

The unit featured the capability to record four Energetic Neutral Atom (ENA) distributions. These ENA data were used to remotely monitor the evolution of the terrestrial ring current during significant geomagnetic storms, thereby providing new insights into solar-related dynamic magnetospheric processes [9]. Bright ENA emissions recorded at the feet of terrestrial magnetic field lines during magnetic storm events indicated the presence of strong related increases in the fluxes of trapped energetic charged particles. ENA data recorded by NUADU and by NASA’s IMAGE/HENA instrument while viewing the northern and southern hemispheres during a major magnetic storm provided the first views of the ring current to be simultaneously obtained in both hemispheres.

The successor to Doublestar is the MIT mission, which stands for Magnetosphere- Ionosphere-Thermosphere, now in development. The purpose of MIT is to study:

The frame of the upcoming MIT mission. Courtesy: Susan McKenna-Lawlor.

• the processes that trigger magnetospheric storms and enable their recovery;

• the transport of ionospheric ions in the magnetosphere;

• the behavior of electrical fields during storms, with their temporal and spatial parameters;

• temperature variations during geomagnetic storms, their seasonal and diurnal variations; and

• the generation, propagation, and dissipation of large-scale gravity waves during storms.

Four satellites are involved: two in perpendicular polar orbits about the Earth at 600 km, called the thermosphere satellites (T1 and T2); a magnetospheric satellite in polar orbit between 1 and 7 Earth radii (M); and a solar wind satellite (S), in an equatorial orbit of 3-25 Earth radii. The instrument package has already been indicated and is outlined in Table 7.5.

Table 7.5. MIT instruments.

Magnetic field detector Electrical field detector Neutral particle spectrometer Plasma analysis system Neutral atom imaging suite Aurora imager

Limb aurora and airglow imager Atmospheric wind and temperature remote sensor

One will carry a new Neutral Atom Detector Unit following NUADU (NAIS-H) but featuring higher spatial resolution combined with a Low Energy Neutral Atom Imager (NAIS-L).


What is the ultimate aim of the Chinese space program? For many Chinese, the development of an indigenous space program has been a source of pride and, as already noted, inspiring “lofty thoughts”. They are conscious that they have developed their program almost entirely on their own, using indigenous human and industrial resources, and despite varying levels of American blockade. As far back as April 1970, Zhou Enlai had proclaimed “We did this through our own unaided efforts” and the program remained the most nationally self-sufficient ever since.

China became, with its first manned spaceflight and then space station, the world’s third most prominent spacefaring nation, following the original space superpowers of Russia and the United States. Many of our planet’s nationalities have now been into space, but as guests of the superpowers; only three countries have the ability to do so on their own. From 2011, there were two manned space stations circling the Earth: an international one, led by the United States, Russia, Europe, Canada, and Japan; and a Chinese one: Tiangong. All this had been achieved by a country where, a little over 50 years earlier, the bicycle, the tractor, and the truck represented the limits of its technology, though never of its imagination. China’s space achievements were all the more remarkable for having been developed in a country so isolated from the world community. Now, China’s cosmodromes, space centers, and satellite factories are humming with activity. Its scientific institutes are expanding, peopled by a young and enthusiastic workforce. The biggest Earthbound space construction project is now taking place at Wenchang, Hainan, with enormous launch pads in the making for entire new launcher fleets. Roadmap 2050 promises a space program on a truly heroic scale.

In Western writings of future space missions, or in what might be called near-term science fiction, China has rarely played any part. An honorable exception is Arthur C. Clarke. In his famous novel, 2010: Odyssey Two (1982, Granada), Arthur C. Clarke had a manned Chinese interplanetary spaceship called, appropriately, the Tsien Hsue Shen, racing to Jupiter and its life-giving moon Europa, ahead of the Americans and the Russians. The Chinese did indeed get there first, but what happened after that is another tale. The Chinese part of the adventure was, in the event, disappointingly dropped from the film version. What a story it would have made!

Fantasy? Maybe, but, when Zhou Enlai and Tsien Hsue Shen set up the Chinese space program on 8th October 1956, who could have imagined that Chinese yuhangyuan would circle the Earth in less than 50 years? And that they would fly to a station in orbit in less than 60 years? The Chinese space program has been forged in a hard factory of technological backwardness, pohtical upheaval, and interna­tional isolation. The imagination, dreams, patience, and dogged determination of Tsien Hsue Shen and his colleagues ensured that China could develop a space program worthy of the country’s ancient achievements in science and engineering. Would it be surprising if an interplanetary spaceship called the Tsien Hsue Shen one day traveled to that lunar base, Mars, Jupiter, or to the far ends of the solar system? Considering all that is now happening, it might be more surprising if one did not.

[1] Times given in this book are normally Universal Time (UT or UTC), associated with the 0° meridian (Greenwich Mean Time) unless, as here, local time is stated. China is one time zone, normally UT + 8 hr.


[3] For detailed information and timelines on Shenzhou 8 and 9 and Tiangong, see Christy, R. China: Piloted Programs and Other Missions, available online at www. zarya. info.

[2] For a description of Tiangong, see Coue, P. China’s Heavenly Palace. Spaceflight, 54 (1) (January 2012); The Second Generation Shenzhou. Space­flight, 54 (2) (February 2012).

[3] Xu, W. Chinese Space Film Drama. Spaceflight, 53 (9) (September 2011).

[4] For the origins and evolution of Tiangong and subsequent planning, see Pirard, T. Appel chinois a la cooperation internationale. Wallonie Espace Infos, 54 (janvier-fevrier 2011); Lin, K.-P. Space Station Orbital Mission Design Using Dynamic Programming. Paper presented to 61st International Astronautical Congress (IAC henceforth), Prague, 2010.

[5] Li, Y. et al. Progress in Space Medicine in 2008-2010. China Journal of Space Science, 30 (5) (2010).

[6] Guo, H.; Wu, J. (eds). Science and Technology in China: Roadmap to 2050. China Academy of Sciences (2009).


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.


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.


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.