The History of the Chinese Space Program

China Launches Its First Space Laboratory Module Tiangong-1
Lintao Zhang / Getty Images

The history of space exploration in China stretches back to 900 A.D., when innovators in the country pioneered the first rudimentary rockets. Although China did not participate in the space race of the mid-20th century, the country had begun to pursue space travel by the late 1950s. The China National Space Administration sent the first Chinese astronaut into space in 2003. Today, China is a major player in the worldwide space exploration effort

Response to U.S. and Soviet Efforts

China's Shenzhou VII Spacecraft Returns To Earth
China's Shenzhou VII Spacecraft Returns To Earth. China Photos/Getty Images

In the mid-20th century, China watched as the U.S. and Soviet Union began their headlong rush to become the first nation on the moon. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union demonstrated progress towards lofting weapons into orbit, which naturally alarmed China and other countries around the world.

In response to these concerns, China began to pursue space travel in the late 1950s in order to deliver its own strategic nuclear and conventional weapons into space. At first, China had a joint cooperation agreement with the Soviet Union, which gave them access to Soviet R-2 rocket technology. However, the accord dissolved in the 1960s, and China began to chart its own path to space, launching its first rockets in September 1960. 

Human Spaceflight from China

Yang Liwei, first Chinese astronaut.
Major General Yang Liwei, first Chinese astronaut from the People's Republic of China. Dyor, via Creative Commons Share and Share Alike 3.0 license.

Starting in the late 1960s, China began working on sending humans into space. However, the process was not a speedy one. The country was in the midst of major political division, particularly after the death of Chairman Mao Zedong. In addition, their space program was still largely a response to possible wars in space and on the ground, so the technological focus was on missile testing. 

In 1988, China created the Ministry of Aerospace Industry to oversee all aspects of space flight. After a few years, the ministry was split up to establish the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. Both governmental and private industry entities joined forces to participate in the space program.

The first Chinese astronaut to travel to space, Yang Liwei, was sent by the CNSA. Yang Liwei was a military pilot and major general in the air force. In 2003, he rode to orbit aboard a Shenzhou 5 capsule on top of a Long March family rocket (the Changzheng 2F). The flight was short – just 21 hours long – but it granted China title of the third country to ever send a human into space and safely return them to Earth.

Modern Chinese Space Efforts

Tiangong-1 prepares for liftoff as a worker waves a red flag.
Tiangong-1 prepares for lift-off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. Lintao Zhang / Getty Images

Today, China's space program is aimed at eventually sending astronauts to the Moon and beyond. In addition to those types of launches, China has built and orbited two space stations: Tiangong 1 and Tiangong 2. Tiangong 1 has been deorbited, but the second station, Tiangong 2, is still in use and currently houses a variety of science experiments. A third Chinese space station is planned for launch in the early 2020s. If all goes as planned, the new space station will bring astronauts to orbit for long-term missions in research stations and will be serviced by a cargo spacecraft.

China's Space Agency Installations

Launch complex with Long March missile.
A Long March rocket readied for launch at Jiquan complex in the Gobi Desert. DLR

The CSNA has several satellite launch centers throughout China. The country's first spaceport is located in the Gobi Desert in a city called Jiuquan. Jiuquan is used to launch satellites and other vehicles into low and medium orbits. The first Chinese astronauts traveled to space from Jiuquan in 2003.

The Xichang Satellite Launch Center, the site of most heavy lift launches for communications and weather satellites, is located in Sichuan Province. Many of its functions are being transferred to the Wenchang Center, which is located in Hainan, China. Wenchang is specially situated at low latitude and is mainly used for sending the newer classes of Long March boosters to space. It is used for space-station and crew launches, as well as the country's deep space and planetary missions.

The Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center deals mostly with weather satellite and earth-science satellites. It also can deliver intercontinental ballistic missiles and other defensive missions. Chinese space mission control centers also exist in Beijing and in Xi'an, and CNSA maintains a fleet of tracking ships that deploy around the world. The CNSA's extensive deep-space tracking network utilizes antennas in Beijing, Shanghai, Kunming and other locations.

China to the Moon, Mars, and Beyond

Two people watch a screen displaying the first-ever space walk by Chinese astronauts.
The live broadcast of the launch of China's Shenzhou VII in 2008. China Photos / Getty Images

One of China's major goals is to send more missions to the Moon. So far, the CNSA has launched both orbital and lander missions to the Moon's surface. These missions have sent back valuable information on the lunar terrains. Sample return missions and a possible crewed visit will likely follow in the 2020s. The country is also eyeing missions to Mars, including the possibility of sending human teams to explore.

Beyond these planned missions, China is eyeing the idea of sending out asteroid sample missions, especially since the United States seems to be backing away from its prior plans to do so. In astronomy and astrophysics, China has created the Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope, its first astronomy satellite. Chinese astronomers will use the satellite to observe black holes and neutron stars.

China and International Cooperation in Space

Moon village
An artist's conception of the proposed Moon Village development between CNSA and the European Space Agency. ESA

Cooperation between countries in space exploration is a fairly common practice. International cooperation helps reduce costs for all nations and brings various countries together to solve technological hurdles. China is interested in participating in international agreements for future explorations. It currently partners with the European Space Agency; together, the CNSA and the ESA are working to build a human outpost on the Moon. This "Moon Village" would start small and grow into a testbed for many different activities. Exploration would be at the top of the list, followed by space tourism and attempts to mine the lunar surface for a variety of consumables.

All the partners are looking at the village as a development base for eventual missions to Mars, asteroids, and other targets. Another use for the lunar village would be the construction of space-based solar power satellites, used to beam energy back to Earth for China's consumption.

International cooperation between China and the U.S. is forbidden. However, many parties in both countries remain open to the idea of cooperation, and there have been some third-party cooperative agreements that allow Chinese experiments to fly aboard the International Space Station.

Key Points

  • The first rudimentary rockets were built in China in 900 A.D. 
  • China's space program began in the 1950s, partly as a reaction to fears that the U.S. and Soviet Union would soon be lofting weapons into space.
  • The China National Space Administration was established in 1988.
  • In 2003, Yang Liwei made history as the first Chinese astronaut to travel into space. The journey made China the third country in the world to send a human into space and safely return them to Earth.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Branigan, Tania, and Ian Sample. “China Unveils Rival to International Space Station.” The Guardian, 26 Apr. 2011. www.theguardian.com/world/2011/apr/26/china-space-station-tiangong.
  • Chen, Stephen. “China Plans Ambitious Space Mission to Hunt and ‘Capture’ Asteroids by 2020.” South China Morning Post, 11 May 2017, www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2093811/china-plans-ambitious-space-mission-hunt-and-capture.
  • Petersen, Carolyn C. Space Exploration: Past, Present, Future, Amberley Books, 2017.
  • Woerner, Jan. “Moon Village.” European Space Agency, 2016, www.esa.int/About_Us/Ministerial_Council_2016/Moon_Village.