China’s Early Human Spaceflight Programme
China’s aspiration for human space exploration emerged in the 1960s, nearly four decades before the country’s first astronaut Yang Liwei flew on the historical Shenzhou 5 mission. The first serious plan to send astronauts into Earth orbit was initiated in 1971, with the development of the two-seater Shuguang 1 manned capsule. However, political turmoil, coupled with technical and financial difficulties, eventually led to a quiet cancellation of the mission in the late 1970s.
- Biology Sounding Rocket Launches
- Planning for a Manned Spaceflight Mission
- Shuguang 1
- Project 714
- Photo Gallery
Biology Sounding Rocket Launches
Shortly after the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial earth satellite Sputnik 1 into orbit in October 1957, Chairman Mao Zedong announced in early 1958 that China would also follow suit to launch its own satellite. A space programme (Project 581) was created within the scientific community and the missile industry to develop a satellite and its launch vehicle. The Chinese military also secretively selected potential candidates to receive training for human spaceflight.
After Project 581 was abandoned in early 1959 due economic hardship, a small team was retained to continue the space research using sounding rockets for suborbital flights. In 1963, the Institute of Biophysics of the China Academy of Sciences (CAS) proposed the use of the two-stage T-7A sounding rocket for biological and high-altitude medical research. Shanghai Institute of Machinery and Electronics (SIME), the developer of the T-7A, modified the rocket’s payload compartment into a pressurised capsule, equipped with onboard camera, oxygen supply, and electrocardiogram telemetry systems.
On 19 July 1964, a T-7A-I biology rocket carrying a group of white laboratory rates was launched from the Guangde Launch Site to an altitude of 70 km. The rats were then returned to Earth alive. This was followed by two more successful suborbital flights also carrying white laboratory rats in June 1965.
In October 1965, the Institute of Biophysics proposed further suborbital flights carrying more advanced animals. SIME made further modifications to the T-7A rocket, including an enlarged 600 mm-diameter payload nosecone and improved tracking and telemetry systems. The rocket also carried additional propellants, increasing its take-off weight to 1,325 kilograms.
On 14 July 1966, a T-7A-II biology sounding rocket was launched, carrying China’s first space dog Xiao Bao (“Little Leopard”). The dog was selected from a pool of 30 experimental dogs through a strict training and screening process, and was trained to accept confinement, spacesuit, noise, vibration and physiological sensors. The rocket reached an altitude of 100 km, before returning the passenger capsule safely to Earth. Two weeks later a second launch was conducted on 28 July, sending space dog Shan Shan into space and then safely returning to Earth.
In August 1966, the Institute of Biophysics and SIME began the preparation for follow-on missions to send monkeys into space. However, the project was soon disrupted by the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution that began in the same year. With the scientists and engineers working on the biology sounding rocket programme denounced and even persecuted, the space monkey mission was soon abandoned.
Planning for a Manned Spaceflight Mission
Just while the Institute of Biophysics was busy in conducting biology sounding rocket flights, the country’s space programme was also revived. From 1966, the Chinese military, defence industry, and scientific community began to draft a ten-year plan to develop satellites in the period of 1966—75. In March 1966, the National Defence Science & Technology Commission (NDSTC), which oversaw China’s strategic weapon programme, hosted a closed session conference in the military-run Jingxi Hotel in Beijing. The purpose of the conference was to develop the concept for a manned spaceflight mission. A working group was set up during the conference to include:
- Cai Qiao, Vice Director of the Academy of Military Medical Sciences;
- Bei Shizhang, Director of the Institute of Biophysics of the China Academy of Sciences;
- Shen Qizhen, Director of the China Academy of Medical Sciences.
After 20 days of intensive debates, the working group came up with a high-level plan, including the launch of biological satellites or sounding rockets carrying animals to test the effects of microgravity and space radiations on humans.
The discussions then went to wider audience. During a conference in May 1966 to discuss China’s 10-year satellite development plan, Jia Siguang (Academy of Military Medicine) delivered a presentation on the purposes of manned spacecraft. Xu Liancang (Institute of Psychology of the China Academy of Sciences) presented a plan for developing the manned spacecraft.
The ten-year satellite development plan envisaged a three-step roadmap:
- To use scientific experimental satellites to validate the various technologies;
- To further develop application satellites for Earth-observation, communications, missile early warning, navigation, and nuclear test detection roles;
- To develop a manned capsule based on the recoverable satellite technology;
Under the suggestion of Dr Qian Xuesen, the father of China’s missile and space programme, the Institute of Cosmos Medicine & Engineering Research (507 Institute) was formed on 1 April 1968 out of the Institute of Biophysics of the China Academy of Sciences, Unit 236 of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and the Military Work Physiology Research Institute of the PLA Academy of Military Medicine. Primary responsibilities of the institute included conducting researches in space medicine and organising astronaut selection and training.
In October 1970, the PLA formed a selection committee responsible for recruiting astronauts. The committee first worked with the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) to identify potential candidates from fighter jet pilots in active service. The pilots were screened for their physical conditions such as age, height, weight, medical history, service history and performance, as well as their political loyalty and family background. Out of the 1,918 pilots regarded as qualified, 88 were picked for further detailed medical examinations in Beijing beginning in January 1971.
The selection process lasted for several months and was conducted in extreme secrecy. The pilots were housed in the PLAAF General Hospital in complete isolation, with no contact with the outside or their families allowed. Even the pilots themselves were not told about the real purpose of the selection process, with many believing they were selected for flying an advanced fighter jet. The candidates were eliminated one by one through ten formal screening steps. Eventually 19 candidates were chosen to join the Astronaut Training Group.
Under the instruction of the Seventh Ministry of Machinery Industry (Ministry of Missile Industry), in March 1967 the Shanghai-based 8th Academy formed a team headed by Wang Xiji to develop a manned space capsule. In September of the same year, Wang and his team drew up the concept of a one-man capsule based on the FSW (Fanhui Shi Weixing) recoverable satellite. However, the design was vetoed by the Vice Minister of the Seventh Ministry Qian Xuesen on the basis that the one-man crew arrangement glorified ‘individual heroism’ — something unpalatable by the political leadership. Wang’s team went back to the drawing board and produced four revised designs with one, two, three, and five crew members. Qian also named the manned capsule Shuguang (“Dawn”).
In 1968, the Shuguang development programme was reassigned to the 501 System Design Department of the newly formed China Academy of Space Technology (CAST, or 5th Academy). As the design department devoted most of its resources to the development of the Dong Fang Hong 1 satellite, little progress was made on the manned capsule over the next two years.
In November 1970, seven months after the launch of Dong Fang Hong 1, the NDSTC and Seventh Ministry hosted a conference to discuss the plan for the follow-on missions. CAST presented the design proposal for Shuguang 1, a two-man capsule capable of flying in low Earth orbit for up to eight days. A full-scale mock-up of the capsule was also displayed during the conference.
Shuguang 1 was similar in size and design to the U.S. Gemini vehicle. The spacecraft consisted of two parts — a habitable Crew Module at front and a Service Module at back. The Crew Module, also serving as the re-entry capsule, contained the pressurised crew compartment with two ejection seats and a control panel. In front of them was an equipment compartment housing the various flight instruments, radio equipment, the parachute and four retrofire rockets. The crew could control the vehicle using a control sticker handle. The aft Service Module would accommodate the orientation rocket engine, propellant tanks, batteries and communication antennas.
Like the FSW recoverable satellite, Shuguang 1 would first jettison its Service Module prior to the re-entry, and then make an unpowered descent through the atmosphere, before lowering its velocity to an acceptable level using its parachute. The two crewmembers would then use their ejection seats to bail out the capsule before landing.
In April 1971, the Chinese political leadership officially approved the human spaceflight plan (Project 714), including the development of a two-man space capsule (Shuguang 1) and the training of astronauts, with an unmanned flight test in 1972 followed by a manned mission in 1973. The space capsule was to be launched atop a large launch vehicle derived from the Dong Feng-6 (DF-6) ICBM under development at the time. In the same month, over 400 space professionals and officials from 80 research institutions across the country gathered in Beijing to finalise the details for the manned spaceflight mission. A number of research projects including spacecraft materials and heat protection kicked off in the following month.
On 13 May, the PLAAF activated a 500-man unit headed by Xue Lun (Commander of the 24th Air Division) to provide support for astronaut training. The unit headquarters, known as Project 714 Office, was situated inside Building No.49 of the Air Force College. The 19 astronaut candidates were asked to report to the office no later than November to commence a two-year training programme. In the next few months, Xue and his team rushed to build training facilities and develop training plans.
In August 1971, construction work began in the mountains near Xichang, Sichuang Province in central China for a new rocket launch facility to support the manned spaceflight mission. The site is situated on 28°N latitude, much closer to the Equator than the existing launch site at Jiuquan (42°N), in order to gain maximum payload advantage from the Earth’s rotation speed.
On 13 September 1971, China’s No.2 political figure and Chairman Mao’s chosen heir, the Defence Minister Lin Biao fled the country and died in a plan crash in Mongolia en route to the Soviet Union, following an alleged unsuccessful coup to overthrow Mao. In the aftermath of the incident, China once again descended into political chaos, with a large-scale investigation launched to cleanse Lin’s supporters within the military apparatus. Xue Lun and other members of Office 714 were detained for sustained interrogation that lasted for nearly a year.
The ‘September 13 Incident’ also put the manned spaceflight programme on an abrupt halt. The 19 chosen pilots reported to the office in November as required but could not begin their training. By late 1971, the Astronaut Training Group was disbanded and the pilots returned to their original units. Construction of the new launch site at Xichang was also on a standstill, while the 12,000 engineering troops waited for new instruction from the PLA headquarters in Beijing.
At the same time, the Shuguang 1 development also encountered enormous technical and financial difficulties, with little progress being made since the launch of the programme in early 1971. The cancellation of the DF-6 ICBM development programme in 1972 was another major blow, as no existing rocket had sufficient payload capacity to send the Shuguang 1 capsule into Earth orbit. Half of the Shuguang 1’s design team were reassigned to the Shijian 2 satellite project. By late 1973 the development became unsustainable and the programme manager had no choice but to release his staffs. Soon there was only one person left in the entire design team.
On 23 October 1974, the Seventh Ministry and the NDSTC jointly reported to the Chinese political leadership on the status of the manned spaceflight programme. Heads of the two departments admitted that little progress had been made since the programme began in 1970, and called for ‘necessary adjustment’ by postponing the first launch of the space capsule to the late 1970s.
Unlike its grand launch in 1970, there was no definitive ending to Project 714. Since the project was personally approved by Chairman Mao, nobody would dare to ask it to be cancelled. The programme simply died out due to a lack of funding and resources. Despite an ambitious plan, China simply did not have the economic strength, industrial capabilities, or political climate to support a coherent human spaceflight programme. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was later quoted saying that China shouldn’t join the Soviet Union and United States in their space race, and that the country should focus on things on Earth first.
Despite the unsuccessful Project 714, many in the Chinese scientific community and space industry never gave up the hope to send Chinese astronaut into orbit. On 26 November 1975, a Chang Zheng-2 rocket launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre (JSLC) successfully placed a FSW recoverable remote-sensing satellite into a 173 x 483 km low Earth orbit. After orbiting the Earth 47 times in three days, the satellite returned to Earth with its capsule successfully recovered.
The success in recovering the satellite triggered a fresh round of speculations about a possible Chinese manned mission. A human capsule was viewed by many as a natural technological next step to the FSW satellite. The re-entry module of the FSW satellite was capable of carrying 260 kg recoverable payload, enough to accommodate a single astronaut and his life-supporting equipment. The FSW mission also demonstrated a credible capability to track and control spacecraft through ground stations. In fact, Chinese newspaper Guangming Ribao described the launch of FSW satellite as the first step towards manned spaceflight.
Space professionals who worked on the Shuguang 1 project were encouraged by the success in the FSW satellite programme, hoping it would lead to a revival of the manned spaceflight programme. However, their hope soon faded when the Chinese de facto leader Deng Xiaoping told officials of the Seventh Ministry in August 1978 that China was still a developing country and should not be taking part in the space race. Instead, the limited resources should be concentrated on urgently needed application satellites.
By the late 1970s, China’s space programme was scaled down with a new, more modest goal of developing the various application satellites for both military and civilian uses. The country’s space budget was also trimmed accordingly so that more resources and funding could be freed up for economic development. China would have to wait for another decade before the manned spaceflight programme was back on the agenda.