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China’s Emergence as a Space Power

From humble origins to superpower, the development of China’s space program mirrors the country’s resurgence on the world stage.

A view of Taiwan and part of mainland China from the International Space Station on July 27, 2014. (Image Credit: NASA)
A view of Taiwan and part of mainland China from the International Space Station on July 27, 2014. (Image Credit: NASA)

China has steadily pursued the development of its space program since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949. From humble beginnings, the country is now one of the most accomplished and sophisticated space-faring nations in the world.

Several accounts of the Chinese foray into rocket science and missile development contend that China was forced to look towards space technology after the United States threatened to use nuclear weapons to negotiate an end to the Korean War of the early 1950s.

In response, Chinese leader Mao Zedong directed the members of his government to develop nuclear weapons as well. The decision was significant because the missile technology required to carry nuclear warheads can also be of critical importance to space flight.

Although Beijing was content to play a neutral role in the race for space between the United States and Soviet Russia, the launch of the first Russian satellite into orbit in 1957 coincided with a dip in relations between China and the Soviet Union, which once again forced the hand of Mao Zedong.

The Early Days of China’s Space Program

In 1956, China established a rocket research and missile center, named the Fifth Research Institute. The center would serve as a basis for developing the technical expertise required to make vehicles for space flight. The next year, Mao launched Project 581, which aimed to mark the tenth anniversary of the Communist Revolution by launching a satellite into space. The People’s Republic, however, lacked the technical knowledge to achieve this goal and the project failed.

By 1958, a few milestones were reached which deserve special mention. In April of that year, work on a rocket launch site near the city of Jiuquan in Mongolia had begun. The facility is now part of a larger aerospace city and is still used to conduct space missions.

The same year, the Chinese started developing the Dongfeng I (DF-I) launch vehicle, a rocket based on Soviet designs. By 1960, Beijing had successfully negotiated the launch of a sounding rocket, a research rocket that’s deployed to conduct scientific measurements in suborbital flight.

In 1960, a T-7 sounding rocket was officially launched, followed by tests for medium-range rockets as well. By 1964, the Chinese had conducted a biological experiment in space using a redesigned sounding rocket. The same decade, intercontinental ballistic missile technology would come to China, another important technological hurdle that space-faring nations must surpass in order to develop successful long-range launch vehicles.

By 1967, as the United States and the Soviet Union competed for prestige by sending men into space, Mao Zedong decided China must follow suit. Project 714, which envisioned a manned mission to space, was adopted within the next four years. However, this program was canceled due to domestic political turmoil.

China’s Great Leap Forward Into Space

During the late sixties and early seventies, the Chinese developed two heavy launch vehicles. Feng-Bao I was a two-stage system that matured in 1969, while the three-stage Chang Zhen I was ready by 1970. Rocket launches depend on propulsion to achieve orbit into space, and this propulsion can be carried out in two or three stages.

Also in 1970, the first communications satellite of the Chinese, named Dong Fang Hong I, was launched. This marked the first step of Beijing into commercial activity regarding the final frontier. A second launch took place soon afterward, carrying scientific equipment to space.

Another first was achieved in 1975 when the Chinese demonstrated their ability to plan a crewed mission as they successfully completed the launch and subsequent return of a satellite to earth. Mao passed away in 1976, and the next few years saw little activity related to space in China, except the commissioning of a space survey ship in 1979.

Beijing also steadily pursued the modernization of ballistic missiles. By the middle of the next decade, the Chinese could afford to send satellites into space on behalf of other Asian or some European nations. This was largely due to the development of full-range ballistic missile technology by the country. By 1984, China had also perfected geostationary communication satellite systems.

In 1986, another project related to manned missions into space was adopted by the Chinese government. Despite design changes to the vehicles aboard which the crew were to be sent into space, the project failed to take-off. In 1990, China launched the AsiaSat I communications satellite.

Subsequently, political changes to the global world order with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 were also felt in Beijing. In 1993, China National Space Administration was formed, formally separating the space sector from the aerospace and defense industries.

A New World Order and a New Frontier

The decision to establish a separate administrative body for space produced immediate results. By 1996, Chinese astronauts were training in Moscow. Three years later, there was a successful launch of a spacecraft designed to take Chinese crew into space. Finally, in 2003, China became the third country in the world to send a manned mission to space. Chinese astronauts flew aboard launch vehicle Shenzhou V. A second manned mission took flight in 2005, and a third in 2008.

A Chinese anti-satellite weapon demolished a Chinese weather satellite in 2007, further cementing the position of Beijing as a space superpower. In tandem with the manned mission, the Chinese announced the Lunar Exploration Program, which envisioned the deployment of robotic missions to the moon in the coming years. As China had already developed heavy launch vehicles, it launched three mission to the moon in 2007, 2010 and 2013 respectively.

The first two programs only sent orbiters to the moon, but the third had a rover on board to collect data from the surface of the body. In 2018, the fourth vehicle of this mission successfully negotiated a landing on the far side of the lunar surface to much media fanfare. Eventually, the Chinese plan to send a manned mission to the moon, possibly in the next two decades.

A plan to put a Chinese space station into orbit is also in the works, according to reports. The first part of this mission was launched in 2011, which was designed to test the parts which would make up a space station. A follow-up to this launch was carried out in 2016, testing refueling and other systems required to keep the space station in orbit. Further tests are expected before an actual station is launched between 2020 and 2022.

One line of thinking on China’s space program is that it’s primarily aimed at leveraging space technology for wealth creation as opposed to purely scientific purposes. Recent Chinese forays into commercial activities in space seem to validate this perspective. Startups that aim to send private satellites into space by offering launch facilities, as well as ones that want to mine asteroids on behalf of wealthy clients, are fast emerging in the country.

Commercial space activity is expected to be a trillion-dollar industry. And though space has great strategic value, it also fits neatly into Beijing’s plans to fuel its next generation of growth mainly by technology.

Written By

Usman Kabir covers science, space, and technology for Globely News. As a kid, he would make models of the solar system and take part in water rocket competitions. His childhood obsession has led him to a degree in Space Science. Usman likes to spend his free time watching reruns of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Seinfeld."

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