The Development of the Shenzhou

The concept of a capsule-type crew vehicle was developed in the late 1980s under the 863 Programme. The development of the Shenzhou vehicle began in 1992, and the first experimental test vehicle made a successful maiden flight in November 1999.

Early Concepts of the Crewed Capsule

In July 1987, the Project 863-204 (Heavy Launch Vehicle and Space-Earth Ferry Transportation System) and Project 863-205 (Manned Space Station) expert groups each signed a contract with Beijing Institute of Aerospace Machinery and Electronics (508 Institute), a subsidiary of CAST, for the conceptual study of a capsule-type spacecraft vehicle that can be used as both a crew transportation system and a ‘lifeboat’ for the space station. The study was completed and signed off by the two expert groups in April 1989.

After deciding to support the capsule concept for the manned space programme, in April 1991 the Ministry of Aeronautics and Astronautics (MAA) issued a request for proposal (RFP) for a capsule vehicle that can be launched by the CZ-2E (Long March 2E) launch vehicle. The RFP went to the ministry’s three primary aerospace design institutions, Beijing-based China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT, or the 1st Academy) and China Academy of Space Technology (CAST, or the 5th Academy), as well as Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST, or the 8th Academy).

By the end of 1991, the three academies had submitted their proposals for the manned capsule:

  • CALT proposed a three-module design similar to the Soviet Soyuz vehicle, but featuring a larger orbital module with automatous flight capability after the conclusion of the manned mission.
  • CAST proposed three designs, including a three-module design modelled after the Soyuz, a second three-module design with a forward re-entry capsule and an orbital module in the middle, and a two-module design similar to the U.S. Gemini vehicle.
  • SAST proposed a three-module design.

After evaluating the various design proposals, the MAA decided that CAST would take a lead in the development of the crewed capsule vehicle, with SAST responsible for the development of the vehicle’s service module, propulsions, power system, and docking system. CALT was tasked with the development of the man-rated launch vehicle based on its CZ-2E design.

Two-Module vs. Three-Module

Before the concept of the crew vehicle could be finalised, the vehicle’s general layout must be decided. Out of the several design proposals, a two-module design and two three-module designs were considered. The two-module design was similar to the U.S. Gemini vehicle, with a crew (re-entry) module at front and a service module at rear. This design creates a risk when the vehicle is used for validating EVA and rendezvous docking: The crew module must double as an airlock and depressurised during an EVA. A breach with the EVA hatch (or the docking port during rendezvous docking) would risk losing the entire crew.

A three-module design proposed by CAST had a re-entry (crew) module located at front, an orbital module in the middle, and an aft service module. When the re-entry module carrying the crew separates at the end of a mission, the remaining orbital and service modules could continue flying autonomously to carry out other secondary missions. However, for the crew to enter the orbital module from the re-entry module, a hatch must be opened at the bottom of the re-entry module where the heat shield is attached. This would create great difficulty in managing the heat during atmospheric re-entry.

An alternative three-module design was largely modelled after the Russian Soyuz vehicle, with an orbital module at front, a re-entry module in the middle, and an aft service module. The orbital module could double as the EVA airlock or docking module. During the docking procedure, the crew remains inside the re-entry module, which is sealed off from the orbital module. This design is both reliable and tested, as demonstrated by the Soyuz’s excellent mission record, and was favoured by many within the space community.

However, the Soyuz design was not without its own flaws. Some space experts pointed out that the middle re-entry module arrangement means that should an anomaly occurs during the ascent stage, the launch escape system must pull both the orbital and re-entry modules away from the launch vehicle, and then the two modules must be separated before the re-entry module carrying the crew can enter a recovery trajectory. This arrangement is rather complex and less reliable compared with the other two designs, where only the front re-entry module needs to be pulled away from the launch vehicle. In addition, there was a political dimension – copying a Russian design would compromise the indigenous nature of the spacecraft, a seemingly minor issue but unpalatable to the programme and political leaderships, who were eager to portrait the manned space programme as a Chinese technological wonder.

After some length debates, a compromise was finally reached. The Soyuz design was adopted, but the Chinese vehicle would have a larger orbital module than that of the Soyuz. This orbital module would also be fitted with a second pair of solar panels and its own flight control system, which allows the module to continue flying autonomously in orbit to carry out secondary missions such as Earth observation or scientific experiment. The unmanned orbital module left by a previous mission could also be used as the target for the next vehicle to practice rendezvous docking.

Engineering Development

Following the initiation of Project 921 in September 1992, CAST created the Manned Spacecraft System Design Office under its 501 Design Department to lead the space development programme. Qi Faren, a well respected veteran satellite designer, was appointed the Chief Designer for the manned spacecraft system. Part of the spacecraft vehicle’s systems, including the service module, propulsions, power system, and docking port, was shared by Shanghai-based SAST. The environment control and life support system (ECLSS) was developed by Beijing Institute of Space Medicine Engineering (507 Institute). The telemetry and communication systems were developed by the China Electronics Technology Corporation (CETC).

Development of the spacecraft vehicle (codenamed Project 921-3) began in November 1992, and was carried out in four stages: conceptual design, prototype development, unmanned flight testing, and manned flight testing. Qi Faren and his team spent the first four months revisiting the original design proposal produced in 1991. They went through the functionality, specifications, development schedule, and budgeted cost of all sub-systems of the spacecraft with SAST and other project partners, to clarify the tasks and requirements of each participating party. This phase of the design process was completed in March 1993.

The preliminary design phase began in April 1993, with the spacecraft’s system design concluded in December of the same year. It was confirmed that the spacecraft was to be built in three configurations: the basic solo flight variant, the crew transportation variant with a docking port, and the space station’s emergency escape craft. The preliminary design of the spacecraft’s 13 sub-systems was also completed during this phase. The detailed design phase began in January 1994 and finished in June. At this point of time, the spacecraft vehicle was officially named Shenzhou. This was followed by the prototype development phase that began in July 1994.

Ground Support Systems

The scope of Project 921 was far beyond simply developing a spacecraft vehicle. It also involved an upgrade of China’s entire spaceflight infrastructure. A state-of-the-art facility known as Beijing Space City was built at Tangjialing, in the northwest suburbs of Beijing. The 2.3 square kilometres (577 acres) facility was a research and development hub, astronaut training base, and mission control centre for China’s human spaceflight and deep space exploration missions.

To support the launch of the heavy CZ-2F booster carrying the 8-tonne Shenzhou vehicle, the heaviest payload ever launched by China at the time, a brand new launch site was being constructed at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre. The launch site featured a dedicated launch pad (Pad 921) with an umbilical tower and underground flame trenches and deflectors, located about 1.5 km away from the technical area where the launch vehicle and spacecraft vehicle are checked out and assembled. The iconic Launch Vehicle Vertical Assembly Building inside the technical area resembles the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) of Launch Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Centre.

The new launch site at Jiuquan was the first in China to have adopted a new ‘vertical’ rollout procedure, where the launch vehicle is assembled vertically within the vehicle assembly building. The launch vehicle and payload stack is then carried vertically atop a mobile launcher platform moving on a 20 m-wide rail tracks to the launch pad, where the vehicle is checked, fuelled and launched.

Developed since the early 1970s to support its satellite launches, China had already developed a sophisticated ground telemetry, tracking and command (TT&C) network to track and communicate with the launch vehicle throughout the entire ascent stage of the flight. This network consisted of ground tracking stations located within a belt stretching from Kashgar near the western border to Qingdao on the east coast of China mainland. Additional tracking and communications capabilities were provided by the Yuanwang tracking ships deployed to around the world.

To support Shenzhou flight missions, the existing TT&C network was upgraded with the Unified S-band (USB) tracking and communication system. Six domestic ground tracking stations were selected to support the human spaceflight missions: Dongfeng, Weinan, Qingdao, Xiamen, Kashgar, and Hetian. They were augmented by three newly-built overseas tracking stations in Namibia, Kenya, and Pakistan, and four Yuanwang tracking ships stationed in the West Pacific off the Japanese coast, the South Pacific near New Zealand, the South Atlantic off the West African coast, and the Indian Ocean near Australia.

The tracking stations and ships are linked together by a cable and wireless communications network centred at the Xi’an Satellite Control Centre (XSCC) and the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control (BACC) Centre, which also have connections with the Jiuquan launch centre’s Launch Mission Command and Control (LMCC) Centre.

Finally, a landing zone was set up in Siziwang Banner, Inner Mongolia as the primary landing site for the Shenzhou re-entry module. The landing zone consists of forward radar station to capture the trajectory of the returning vehicle, the primary measurement site to provide telemetry, tracking, communications and weather services, and the ground/air search and rescue teams. A secondary landing zone was also set up east of the Jiuquan launch centre. Additional emergency landing zones were set up both on land and in the East China Sea during the launch of the spacecraft vehicle.

Shenzhou Experimental Test Vehicle

By the time the engineering development phase of the Shenzhou began in 1997, the development programme was already 18 months behind the schedule. The target date for the first unmanned flight test, originally set for 1997—98, had slip to late 1999 and even this revised target appeared unachievable. Criticism began to emerge within the government demanding the manned space programme to be scrapped and its resources used to support other key projects. General Cao Gangchuan, Director of Project 921, proposed a daring plan to turn an electric test article into a flying vehicle for the first unmanned test flight. This would be highly risky since the vehicle had not been fully tested for orbital flight but would meet the target date of 1999 for the first unmanned flight test.

In November 1998, Party General Secretary and President Jiang Zemin was invited to visit the Beijing Space City, which had been constructed under high secrecy. Jiang was given a tour to the newly built mission control centre and also shown the Shenzhou vehicle under construction. Highly impressed with what the programme had achieved, Jiang encouraged the programme staffs to endeavour to send Chinese astronaut into space. The PR stunt gained the programme crucial support from the top political leadership and silenced its critics.

General Cao’s gamble paid off. The first experimental Shenzhou vehicle, a ‘skeleton’ spacecraft with a dummy orbital module and only 8 of the 13 sub-systems functional, was delivered to the launch site in July 1999, allowing the launch campaign to begin for a launch before the end of the year. Some last-minute technical issues further postponed the launch window from early November to late November. Finally, at 06:30 China Standard Time on 20 November (20:30 UTC on 19 November), the CZ-2F (Y1) launch vehicle carrying the Shenzhou test vehicle lifted off from Pad 921 at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre.

508 Institute space capsule concept

A scaled model of the three-module human capsule concept proposed by 508 Institute for the 863 Programme Space-Earth Transportation System


Shenzhou orbital module docking concept

Computer-generated rendering showing the early concept of Shenzhou vehicle performing rendezvous docking with an orbital module from a previous mission. This concept was later ditched and a dedicated target vehicle Tiangong 1 was developed based on the Space Laboratory concept


Shenzhou testing

Shenzhou re-entry module in landing test


shenzhou testing

Shenzhou re-entry module airdrop test


shenzhou testing

Shenzhou launch escape system test


Shenzhou launch-escape-zero

Shenzhou launch escape system zero-altitude test


Shenzhou 1

Shenzhou experimental test vehicle


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