Origin of the Shenzhou Spacecraft

Following an unsuccessful attempt to send human into space in the early 1970s, China’s human spaceflight plan re-emerged in the mid-1980s against a background of vigorous competition amongst space fairing nations to establish their presence in Earth orbit. In March 1986, the Chinese government launched the 863 Programme, a state-sponsored initiative intended to nurture China’s fundamental research in new and creative technologies. The aerospace section of the 863 Programme was focused on the conceptual studies of a manned Earth-orbiting space station, as well as the crew transportation system and its launch vehicle.

Space Shuttle vs. Capsule

While having a space station as the ultimate objective of the manned space programme was never in question, different views existed over the choice of the means to transport astronauts to and from the station on orbit. Inspired by the success of the NASA Space Shuttle, many experts in the space and scientific community believed that China ought to develop its own reusable spacecraft system, in the form of a space shuttle or spaceplane. However, a minority of experts favoured a more conventional non-reusable capsule design.

This dispute led to an internal debate that lasted for almost seven years. In 1987, the 863 Programme’s Expert Group issued a request for proposal to 60 research institutes for a space-earth transportation system concept. Following the initial round of evaluation, six designs were selected for further assessment:

  • H-2 Spaceplane – A winged, fully-reusable, horizontal take-off and landing (HTOL) system powered by ramjet engines, proposed by the Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute (601 Institute).
  • V-2 Spaceplane – A two-stage, vertical take-off and horizontal landing (VTOHL) system proposed by the Ministry of Aeronautics 11th Institute, consisting of a launcher vehicle and an orbiter vehicle, both powered by rocket engines.
  • Chang Cheng 1 Space Shuttle – A vertical take-off and horizontal landing (VTOHL) system proposed by 805 Institute of the SAST and 604 Aircraft Design Institute.
  • Tian Jiao 1 Space Shuttle – A vertical take-off and horizontal landing (VTOHL) space transportation system proposed by the CALT, about one-sixth the size of the U.S. Space Shuttle.
  • Mini Space Shuttle – A mini shuttle system similar in size and design to European Space Agency (ESA)’s Hermes spaceplane, proposed by the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute.
  • Manned Capsule – A three-module, capsule-type spacecraft vehicle proposed by 508 Institute of the CAST.

In 1988, during the final round of evaluation, the Tian Jiao 1 space shuttle and manned capsule were both selected as the winners. Unable to gain a consensus among the space experts, the evaluation expert group recommended that China should develop both systems, with a manned capsule that could first fly by 2000, and a shuttle system that could fly by 2015. The recommendations were reported to the political leadership, but received no response over the next two years.

Start with Capsule

Despite the enthusiasm for a manned space programme within the space community and academia circle, China’s political leadership was reluctant to commit to such a hugely expensive and potentially politically risky project. There were powerful voices within the government and military arguing against the manned space programme, questioning whether this was the most appropriate way to advance China’s space capability, or whether China had the necessary technical knowledge, industrial capabilities, and financial strength to support a project of this scale.

By 1990, the Soviet Union and the United States both continued to make progress with their human spaceflight programmes — construction of the Mir Space Station was well underway and the U.S. Government had just authorised the construction of a new space shuttle orbiter Endeavour. Chinese space professionals feared that without the country’s own human spaceflight programme, China may soon fall behind other nations in the international race to establish a human presence in Earth orbit.

Given that a shuttle system was far beyond China’s technological and industrial capabilities, the space community soon reached a conclusion that China should soon launch its own manned space programme, beginning with a manned capsule to send astronaut into space, and eventually constructing a manned space station on Low Earth Orbit. This guiding principles was summarised in a set of four-character Chinese phases, which can be translated as:

Can’t not do it (不可不搞); Can’t do it big (不可大搞); Start with capsule (飞船起步); Smooth and steady development (平稳发展).

Three-Step Plan Towards a Space Station

An influential figure advocating for a manned space programme was Liu Jiyuan, deputy head of the Minister of Aeronautics and Astronautics (MAA). In January 1991, Liu used his personal relationship to forward two reports on China’s human spaceflight plan directly to Deng Xiaoping, who had by then retired from all Party and government posts but remained a paramount political leader. In his report, Liu argued that whether to launch a manned space programme or not was a political decision rather than a purely technical one. Liu also warned that (without a manned space programme) China would be in danger of losing its international status as a space-faring nation, established not so easily by the previous generation of Chinese leaders.

The turning point came in early 1991, when an internal memo of the MAA on the debate over China’s manned spacecraft vehicle was forwarded to all senior leaders including Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin, Premier Li Peng, and President Yang Shangkun. The memo was accompanied by commentary from General Liu Huaqing, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), urging the political leadership to make a swift decision on the human spaceflight programme. Liu also suggested that the cost of the programme could be partially funded by the country’s gold reserve.

The military’s unequivocal support to the human spaceflight programme appeared to have made an impact on the political leadership’s thinking. On 15 March 1991, Premier Li Peng summoned senior experts of the MAA to his office in the Zhongnanhai compound to present the proposed human spaceflight plan. Ren Xinmin, a founding member of China’s missile and space industry and a long-time advocate for the human spaceflight programme, went to meet Premier Li along with the head of the Project 863-204 (Space-Earth Transportation System) Expert Group Qian Zhenye. The two experts presented a three-step plan to establish China’s human presence in Earth orbit, to be implemented over a timespan of 30 years:

  • Step 1: to conduct two unmanned flight tests and a manned mission by 2000, establish the basic infrastructure for supporting human spaceflight missions, and carry out space applications.
  • Step 2: to achieve the orbital rendezvous and docking between the manned space capsule and target vehicle by 2007, and launch 8-tonne temporarily man-tended space laboratory.
  • Step 3: to construct a 20-tonne space station and achieve long-term man-tended space applications by 2020.

The two experts also explained in detail the plan to develop a manned capsule, which could be developed using technological know-how acquired through China’s recoverable satellite (FSW) programme. The capsule could be launched atop a man-rated version of the Chang Zheng-2E (Long March 2E), China’s most powerful orbital launcher at the time. By adopting this approach, the capsule could make its first unmanned flight test in 1997 and the first manned flight around 2000.

Li Peng was impressed with the plan and particularly pleased that synergy was created through the use of the existing Chang Zheng-2E launch vehicle. He provisionally committed to a RMB 3 billion (US$ 564 million) spending for the development and launch of the manned space capsule, including RMB 600 million (US$ 113 million) for the upgrade of space launch and tracking infrastructure. He also suggested that certain key technologies could be acquired from the Soviet Union to help reduce development time and risk. Li commissioned the MAA to conduct a detailed feasibility study, before a final decision could be made by the Party’s Politburo.

Feasibility Study

In April 1991, the MAA issued a request for proposals for a manned capsule that could be launched by the Chang Zheng-2E launch vehicle, which had a LEO launch capacity of just under 8,000 kg. The request went to the ministry’s three prime R&D centres: China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT, or the 1st Academy), China Academy of Space Technology (CAST, or the 5th Academy), and 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 an evaluation process, the CALT design selected. However, the task to develop the capsule was assigned to CAST, with the development of the capsule’s service module and power system shared by SAST, so that CALT could focus on the development of the man-rated launch vehicle, whch was given a designation Chang Zheng-2F.

Based on the design proposal submitted by the MAA, the government’s Central Special Committee asked for a more detailed feasibility study on the entire programme. The feasibility study was headed by the military-run Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (COSTIND). 200 space experts divided into nine groups spent the next six months to work out detailed plans for every aspect of the programme, including technological approaches, key technical challenges and solutions, development phases, projected timeframe, and the estimated development cost.

The feasibility study was signed off by the Central Special Committee on 1 August 1992. The committee concluded that while China did not possess the capabilities to support a full-scale manned space programme like those of the United Sates and Russia, it could achieve some breakthroughs in certain selected key areas. As a result, the primary objective of the first phase of the programme was to develop a capsule spacecraft comparable to the fourth-generation Soyuz-TM vehicle.

By then, the estimated cost of the first phase of the programme had already spiralled from the original estimate of RMB 3 billion to a staggering RMB 14.9 billion, something that caused serious concerns for the government treasury. The manned space programme was also the most complex and technologically challenging industrial project ever committed by China at the time.

Launch of Project 921

On 21 September 1992, the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee’s Politburo Standing Committee held a dedicated session at the Zhongnanhai compound to discuss the human spaceflight plan. The session was chaired by Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin and attended by all members of the standing committee, as well as three Party grandees: Yang Shangkun, Wan Li, and Bo Yibo.

Premier Li Peng explained to the committee members that the manned space programme was not merely an engineering project, but also an opportunity to upgrade China’s space industrial base and train a new-generation of space professionals. In answering the questions regarding the tangible benefits of such a costly programme, Li responded that embarking on a manned space programme was a political move to build national prestige, and therefore the programme should not be measured purely from a financial perspective.

The Committee members unanimously agreed that the manned space programme should be adopted as a national goal, and approved the Central Special Committee’s request to launch the manned space programme, including the three-step plan to build the manned space station. Party chief Jiang Zemin also asked that the space capsule development to be carried out in secrecy. To commemorate the date when the programme was officially launched (September 21st in Chinese date format), the China Manned Space Programme was given a code name Project 921.

Chang Cheng 1

Artist impression of the Chang Cheng 1 shuttle landing horizontally on the runway

Chang Cheng 1

Artist impression of the Chang Cheng 1 shuttle concept. The concept showed strong influence of the NASA Space Shuttle, with the orbiter carried atop a Boeing 747 similar to the NASA Shuttle Carrier Aircraft for transit to launch centre

Deng Xiaoping in Shuttle simulator

Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping experiencing a NASA Space Shuttle simulator during his visit to the Johnson Space Centre in February 1979

Astronaut training in the 80's

Chinese astronaut trainees inside a shuttle-style cockpit simulator in the 1980s

508 Institute space capsule concept

The non-reusable human capsule concept proposed by 508 Institute for the 863 Programme’s Space-Earth Transportation System

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