Shenzhou 5

Other name: SZ-5. Type: Manned spaceflight. Crew size: 1. Programme: Project 921-I. Agency: CMSA. Spacecraft family: ShenzhouOrbit: LEO. Launch site: Jiuquan. Launch complex: Pad 921 (SLS1). Launch vehicle: CZ-2F (Y5). Launch date: 2003-10-15. Lift-off time: 09:00 CST. Landing: 2003-10-16 06:23 CST. Duration: 21 hours 23 minutes. Orbits: 14.

The China Manned Space Programme reached a major milestone on 14 October 2003, when the 38-year-old former fighter pilot Lt. Col. Yang Liwei became the first Chinese astronaut to have flown in Earth orbit aboard the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft. The successful mission also made China the third country in the world, after Russia and the United States, to possess the capability of sending human into space independently.

Pre-Launch Preparation

Following four unmanned flight tests, the Shenzhou spacecraft was finally ready for its first manned mission in 2003. However, the spacecraft’s design team were still making last minute modifications to optimise the spacecraft design and eliminate any possibility of a fault. The Shenzhou 5 vehicle was certified for production rollout on 18 July 2003, but a last minute decision to redesign the shock absorbers on the astronaut seats caused some further delay to the launch schedule.

The launch campaign finally began on 5 August, when the spacecraft vehicle was airlifted to the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre. The CZ-2F-Y5 launch vehicle was delivered to the launch centre aboard a railway train on 23 August. An all-system launch rehearsal participated by both mission and ground crews took place between 18 and 19 September. The four Yuanwang instrumentation ships left their homeport on 20 September for deployment to the Western and Southern Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and the Southern Atlantic to provide telemetry and tracking support for the mission.

The launch window was selected to be on 15 October, which deliberately coincided with the ending of a Communist Party conference in Beijing, and a day ahead of President Hu Jintao’s visit to Thailand for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. President Hu paid a personal visit to the launch centre to oversee the launch, while other Party and state leaders were observing the launch from the Mission Control Centre in Beijing. To avoid the adverse effects in case of a failure, the launch was not broadcasted on live television.

14 former air force fighter jet pilots had been undergoing gruelling training since 1998 to prepare for the manned flight. Five of them were then selected to take part in a two-month intensive training for the Shenzhou 5 mission. The original mission plan included two astronauts flying in orbit for 7 days. However, under the shadow of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in February 2003, the mission was drastically scaled down to only one day, with a single astronaut crew. Out of the 14 astronauts, three were chosen as prospective candidates: Yang Liwei, Nie Haisheng, and Zhai Zhigang. The final decision on who would fly in the mission was not made until the evening before the launch.

The evening before the launch, in a secret ballot amongst few army generals in charge of the human space flight programme, Yang Li-wei was chosen as the favoured candidate for this mission, with Nie Hai-sheng and Zhai Zhi-gang being the backup crews.


The three astronauts were awakened at 02:00 China Standard Time (CST) on 15 October 2003 for their breakfast.

04:00 CST – Yang put on the white pressure suit under the help of ground staffs.

05:20 CST – The three crews went into an environmentally controlled room, where they were greeted by President Hu from behind a glass wall. 10 minutes later, Yang in the white pressure suit appeared on the courtyard in front of the astronaut apartment, holding the mobile air-conditioning unit for his space suit in the left hand, and waving the right hand to a crowd of well-wishers, most of which were staffs of the launch centre and their families. He then soluted to the programme commander General Li Jinan, requesting for permission to proceed with the flight mission.

05:58 CST – Yang arrived at the launch pad along with his trainer and doctor, and then entered the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft on top of the 60 m-high launch vehicle at CST 06:15, exactly 2 hours 45 minutes before the launch.

09:00:00 CST (01:00:00 GMT) – The CZ-2F (Y5) rocket carrying Shenzhou 5 blasted off the launch pad. 9 minutes and 50 seconds into the flight, the spacecraft was separated from the second-stage of the rocket and entered its initial orbit.

09:33 CST – Yang reported to the ground via the radio link: “I’m feeling well”. The programme commander General Li Jinan announced that the Shenzhou 5 launch was successful.


The first manned flight mission was solely aimed for the safe flight and return of the spacecraft and her crew, with no other mission added to the flight schedule. Yang remained in the re-entry capsule with his pressure suit on throughout the 21-hour flight. He had his first meal in space at 11:00 CST, and the first rest session of three hours sleep at 12:00 CST. Defence Minister General Cao Gangchuan spoke to Yang from the Beijing Spaceflight Control Centre via the video link at 17:26 CST.

18:24 CST – During the 7th orbit, Yang displayed a Chinese national flag and a United Nations flag to the camera. The images were broadcasted on the national TV.

19:58 CST – Yang had a 5-minute conversation with his wife and son at the Beijing control centre via the video link.

23:45 CST – Yang had his second rest session.

Re-entry and Landing

05:30 CST on 16 October – After circling the Earth for 14 times, Shenzhou 5 began its re-entry procedure under the ground command. Retrofire started at 05:38 CST and the orbital module was jettisoned at 05:59 CST. Few minutes later, the re-entry capsule entered the Earth atmosphere at a speed of 7.8 km/sec.

06:06 CST – The re-entry capsule of Shenzhou 5 exited from the communications blackout. Five search and rescue helicopters were already airborne and on their way to the landing spot. The helicopters soon captured the radio signal from the 243 MHz MF beacon on the capsule. Helicopter crews also spotted the parachute of the capsule, and directed the ground crew to the landing position 7.5 km away.

06:23 CST, the Shenzhou 5 re-entry capsule touched down on the grassland of Inner Mongolia, about 4.8 km away from its targeted landing spot. Yang remained inside the capsule waiting for the arrival of the rescue crew.

06:31 CST – Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao spoke to Yang over the radio and congratulated his safe return.

06:38 CST – The rescue crew opened the hatch of the re-entry capsule and reported that Yang was in good condition.

06:51 CST – Yang walked out of the capsule under the assistance of the rescue crew at 06:51, marking the successful ending of the first manned flight mission.

07:40 CST – After an initial medical assessment, Yang was flown to a nearby airport onboard a rescue helicopter. A military passenger jet waiting there then flew the astronaut, who had become a national hero, to Beijing.


Yang later recalled his experience of severe discomfort caused by a low-frequency vibration during the ascent stage. Investigations showed that the vibration came from the launcher rocket. The Shenzhou 6 crew two years later also experienced the same discomfort (though less severe) and the issue was only fully resolved in the Shenzhou 7 mission in 2008. Yang also recalled that the re-entry was the most physically challenging stage of the entire flight. He suffered from a minor wound on his lip caused by the impact of landing, and had blood on his face when first found by the rescue crew.

The Shenzhou 5 mission was hailed as a historical success for the nation and met with praise and congratulations from around the world. The re-entry capsule and other souvenirs from the mission were sent around the country for public exhibitions. During an official celebration ceremony held in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 7 November, President Hu congratulated the astronaut Yang Liwei, and also thanked the tens of thousands of people that had contributed to the human spaceflight programme. Hu described the successful launch and return of the first astronaut as a demonstration of the country’s capability and determination. He credited the human spaceflight programme a reflection of the nation’s spirit and a role model for the Party, the armed forces, and the whole nation.

Yang Liwei was hailed as the “Spaceflight Hero” and awarded the Spaceflight Merit. He was promoted to a colonel straight after the mission and then to a senior colonel four months later. He never returned to spaceflight after the Shenzhou 5 mission, but was still directly involved in the human spaceflight programme. In 2005, Yang became the deputy chief of the astronaut programme. His political career prospered in 2007, when he was selected to become an alternate to the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee. In 2008, Yang was promoted a major general. In 2010, he became the deputy director of the manned space programme’s management office (921 Office).

The direct cost for the Shenzhou 5 mission alone was reported to be RMB 1 billion (US$120 million based on 2003 price). The total cost of the human spaceflight programme since its beginning in 1992 was RMB 18 billion (US$2.16 billion based on 2003 price).

%d bloggers like this: