Chinese aerospace industry celebrate 60 years of long march

Difficult and dangerous work remains to be done, but for now the Chinese aerospace industry is on track to implement the country’s long-term plan to expand its presence in space

On 8 October 1956, at a disused military hospital in Beijing, some 300 people gathered for a low-profile ceremony to mark the creation of a new research institution — the Fifth Academy of the Ministry of National Defence. Headed by the world-famous rocket scientist Dr Qian Xuesen, this institution was tasked with a highly secretive mission: to develop rocket propulsion and missiles for the delivery system of China’s nuclear weapons. This date is now commemorated as the birthday of the Chinese aerospace industry, which today employs over 310,000 people and contribute billions of RMB each year into the country’s economy.

Unlike their counterparts in the U.S. and Europe, Chinese aerospace manufacturers are not involved in the development and building of aircraft, but purely focused on missiles, rockets and spacecraft systems. This unique character is a legacy of a Soviet-style industrial-military complex, created in the late 1950s with a combination of Chinese scientists’ ingenuity and Soviet assistance. The Fifth Academy created in 1956 was a military-run institution exclusively responsible for the development of surface-to-surface, surface-to-air, and anti-ship missile weapons, separate from the aviation industry managed by the civilian Bureau of Aeronautics. The two institutions later involved into China’s aerospace industry and aviation industry respectively.

The core development team of the Fifth Academy at its creation was a small group of Western-trained scientists and engineers, including Qian Xuesen (MSc from MIT and Doctorate from the California Institute of Technology), Ren Xinmin (MSc and doctorate in mechanical engineering from University of Michigan), Tu Shancheng (MSc and Doctorate in electrical engineering from Cornell University), Liang Shoupan (MSc from MIT), Tu Shou’e (MSc from MIT), and Huang Weilu (MSc from the Imperial College, University of London), who later all became pivotal figures in the Chinese aerospace industry.


Dr Qian Xuesen

In its early years, the Chinese missile and rocket programme also benefited from assistance in hardware and technology from the Soviet Union, which supplied examples and design documents of three missiles (R-2 ballistic missile, R-75 surface-to-air missile, and P-15 anti-ship missile). Moscow also sent advisers to help their Chinese comrades to construct a rocket test range in northwest China (now Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre), a rocket engine test site near Beijing, and other R&D facilities. Although the assistance was abruptly ended in 1960 following the fallout between the two Communist countries, China was able to build on these technologies to develop its own missile designs.

By the early 1960s, the Fifth Academy was transferred from the military to the government jurisdiction, and became the Seventh Ministry of Machinery Industry (later renamed Ministry of Astronautics). The academy’s five research institute were reorganised into R&D academies, responsible for ballistic missiles, surface-to-air missiles, anti-ship missiles, solid-fuel rockets, and orbital launchers respectively. A number of high-profile milestones were achieved by the ministry throughout the 1960s, including China’s first ballistic missile ‘Project 1059’ (R-2 copy) in November 1960, China’s first indigenous short-range ballistic missile DF-2 (CSS-1) in 1964, the first missile-delivered nuclear test using a DF-2A missile in 1966, and the first medium-range ballistic missile DF-3 (CSS-2) in 1968.

In April 1970, China became the fifth member of the elite space-faring nation club, when it successfully launched a scientific experiment satellite Dong Fang Hong 1 into orbit using a modified DF-4 (CSS-3) intermediate-range ballistic missile, named CZ-1 (Chang Zheng-1, or Long March-1). This was followed by a second scientific experiment satellite Shijian 1 in 1971, and the launch and recovery of three FSW recoverable satellites between 1975 and 1978, using the more capable CZ-2 launch vehicle modified from the DF-5 (CSS-4) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).


CZ-1 launcher carrying China’s first satellite DFH-1 at Jiuquan in April 1970

By the 1980s, China was able to further expand its space programme by launching geostationary communications satellite Dong Fang Hong 2 (DFH-2) using the CZ-3 launcher in 1984, and the first meteorological satellite Feng Yun 1 (FY-1) on Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO) using the CZ-4A launcher in 1988. At the same time, the aerospace industry continued to support China’s strategic weapon programme, with the successful full-range flight test of the DF-5 ICBM in 1980, the test launch of the DF-21 (CSS-5) mobile-launch medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) in 1985, and the underwater test launch of the JL-1 (CSS-N-3) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) in 1988.

As the country adopted an economic reform and opening-up policy, the Chinese aerospace industry entered the international commercial satellite launch market in the late 1980s, offering a low-cost solution to launch foreign satellites using its Long March series rockets. Between 1990 and 1999, China conducted 11 launches for foreign telecommunications satellites from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre, as well as 12 (in six launch missions) U.S. Motorola Iridium mobile communications satellites from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Centre. However, a number of high-profile launch failures, coupled with a ban by the U.S. government for launching American-made satellites on Chinese rockets, almost forced Chinese aerospace companies out of the commercial launch market by 2000.

Another important milestone was the decision to embark on a manned spaceflight programme in 1992. The Chinese aerospace industry has drown up a three-step plan, which was to be implemented over a timespan of 30 years, to build a permanent space station on Low Earth Orbit. As the first step, the Shenzhou human capsule was developed in the 1990s and successfully tested in 1999. Four years later, on 15 October 2003, China’s first astronaut Yang Liwei successfully flew in orbit aboard the Shenzhou 5 vehicle. A string of successes followed therefore, including EVA and rendezvous docking missions, paving the way for the construction of space station in the early 2020s.

Yang Liwei Shenzhou 5

China’s first astronaut Yang Liwei on his Shenzhou 5 mission on 15 October 2003

The aerospace industry witnessed some significant transformation in the 1990s. Following a short and unsuccessful marriage between the Ministry of Aeronautics and the Ministry of Astronautics from 1988 to 1993, the aerospace industry was separated and reorganised into the China Aerospace Industry Corporation (CASC) in 1993. In an attempt to introduce further commercialisation and encourage competition, the corporation was split into two consortia in 1999, with the creation of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC). A new government agency China National Space Administration (CNSA) was also created to oversee the country’s civilian space programme.

Thanks to the country’s booming economy, the Chinese aerospace industry has enjoyed a period of rapid growth since 2000. Continuous inflow of investment has helped create new programmes, attract young talents, and upgrade R&D infrastructure. The launch of three robotic lunar exploration missions including a soft-landing on the Moon, continued successes with the manned spaceflight programme, and deployment of a wide range of application satellites, all contributed to China’s emerge as a world’s leading space-faring nation in the early 21st century. However, China’s space ambition does not stop here: the aerospace industry is now introducing an entire family of new-generation orbital launchers to replacing old ICBM-derived designs from the Cold War era, and drawing plans to go beyond Earth orbit, including a Mars probe mission, exploration of other planets in the solar system, and even a manned lunar landing mission over the next decade.

The impressive success comes with a growing concern by other nations over the lack of transparency in China’s space programme. The Chinese aerospace industry has been closely associated with the country’s ballistic missile and strategic weapon programme since its creation. Chinese aerospace companies have been sanctioned in the past for proliferation of ballistic missile technology to foreign countries. Washington has long been accusing Beijing for stealing U.S. satellite and rocket technology to assist its ballistic missile development, and has passed legislation to ban NASA to collaborate with the Chinese space programme. In January 2007, China conducted a highly controversial anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test, destroying a retired Chinese satellite on orbit.

CZ-7 lift-off

CZ-7 (Y1) lifting off from Launch Complex 201 at the Wenchang Space Centre during its maiden flight on 25 June 2016 (Credit: Xinhua News)

Within the next two weeks, we’ll see a Shenzhou spacecraft vehicle carrying a two-man crew to the Tiangong 2 Space Laboratory module, where they’ll spend 30 days to experience orbital living. In early November, the new-generation CZ-5 launcher will make its debut flight. Next April, the Tianzhou 1 cargo vehicle will demonstrate an in-orbit refuelling operation with the Tiangong 2 module. Later that year, we’ll also see the Chang’e 5 probe to make a soft-landing on the Moon and then return lunar soil samples to Earth. In 2018, the Chang’e 4 probe will soft-land on the far side of the Moon, a first in the history of space exploration. By the early 2020s, we’ll see an operational Chinese space station on LEO, and a robotic probe landing on Mars. Difficult and dangerous work remains to be done, but for now the Chinese aerospace industry is on track to implement the country’s long-term plan to expand its presence in space.

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