China:The Next Superpower In Space?

The early history of space exploration was completely dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union. In recent years, several other countries have joined the space race as well, none of which have dedicated the resources or made the advances of China.

Museum Exhibit: Mission Patch

On October 15, 2003, China became the third nation to launch one of its own citizens into space. Taikonaut Yang Limei became China’s first man in space as the pilot aboard Shenzhou 5. It was a short, “shakedown” mission that stayed in orbit for just 22 hours, but it proved the spacecraft was ready for manned flight. The mission patch, seen here, speaks to Limei’s flight: A single bird soaring into space.

Roots of China's Manned Spaceflight Program

Not long after The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, the communist state gained a powerful ally in the Soviet Union. This alignment was solidified with the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance, a treaty that gave China access to the Soviets’ Cold War technology; when the Soviet Union developed nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles in the mid-1950s, it shared the technology with China. And just like the Soviet Union turned its missiles into the R-7 satellite launch vehicle, China developed its own Long March rocket based on the same Soviet technology. The technology China gained persisted after the Sino-Soviet Treaty was dissolved in 1960. The country’s communist idealism proved stronger than an alliance with the Soviet Union.


Fun Fact 1: China Getting off the Ground

China launched the first successful Long March rocket on April 24, 1970. It carried the satellite Dong Fang Hong 1 into low Earth orbit (Dong Fang Hong translates to “east is red” in English). Thirteen years after the space age had begun with Sputnik, there was a third player in the space game.

Long March rocket

Dummy Testing

The first man-rated Chinese spacecraft, Shenzhou 1, was an unmanned test launched on November 19, 1999. It was simple, but it was a milestone mission that stayed in orbit for a little less than 24 hours. China followed with Shenzhou 2 on January 9, 2001. This second spacecraft included a life support system that kept a dog, a monkey, and a rabbit alive as passengers. Shenzhou 3, which launched on March 25, 2002, was the first spacecraft to fly with a man-rated life-support system, though its only passenger was a humanoid dummy that sent mock physiological data to controllers on the ground. The final unmanned test was Shenzhou 4. Launched on December 29, 2002, there were two humanoid dummies on board this spacecraft that was fully equipped for manned flight; there were sleeping bags, food, and medication on board. Shenzhou 5 carried Yang Limei into orbit.

Shenzhou Dummy

China's Manned Missions

Since Yang Limei became the first taikonaut in space in 2003, China has only launched a handful of manned missions. Shenzhou 6 launched on October 12, 2005 with two taikonauts on board for a 19 hour orbital mission. Shenzhou 7 launched on September 28, 2008, with the first three-man crew of the program. Shenzhou 8 was another unmanned mission that launched on October 31, 2011, less than a month after the first prototype space station, Tiangang 1, reached orbit. This spacecraft made the first automated docking with the prototype station. Shenzhou 9 followed on June 16, 2012. This crew, which included the first Chinese woman to fly in space, made the first manned docking with the Tiangang 1 station. Shenzhou 10, another three-man crew, launched on June 11, 2013. It was the last manned mission to visit Tiangong 1.

manned mission

Steady Progress in Space

China has more or less stuck to the three-step model it laid out in 1992: launch a manned mission by 2002, launch a temporary space station by 2007, and launch a permanent space station sometime thereafter. Shenzhou 5 marked the completion of that first major goal, and when China launched the Tiangang prototype space station in 2011, this marked the second goal. Tiangang 1 was deorbited late in 2013, paving the way for China’s final goal of a permanent space station.


Fun Fact 2: Shenzhou

The Shenzhou spacecraft is modular with an orbital module, a descent module, and an instrument module, not unlike the Soviet-era Russian Soyuz spacecraft. And there are a number of translations for its name, including: Divine Ark, Magic Boat, Vessel of God, and Divine State.

The Shenzhou spacecraft