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  • Writer's pictureSven Piper

The Chinese Space Program

Updated: 6 days ago

The Earth photographed by Shenzhou 12
The Earth photographed by Shenzhou 12

Since October 15, 2003, China has joined the elite club of space-faring nations that can carry out manned space flights. This special shows the development of the Chinese space program since its beginnings in the 1950s and its ambitious goals for the future.

Qian Xuesen 1950
Qian Xuesen 1950

The beginning of the Chinese space program is closely linked to the name Qian Xuesen (1911-2009) [also spelled as Tsien Hsue-shen]. Qian Xuesen was born in Shanghai and began his studies in China. Awarded a scholarship, he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1935 and transferred to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1936. There he completed his doctorate under the supervision of Theodore von Kármán. He is also considered a co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). In 1943, during World War II, Qian helped analyze the superior German rocket program for the US Army, and at the end of the war, he traveled to Germany as a US Army colonel to interview captured German rocket scientists, including Wernher von Braun, and recruit them for the American rocket program. [1]

In 1950, during the McCarthy era, he was imprisoned on charges of espionage (although there was never any evidence of this) and after five years of house arrest, he and his family were allowed to leave for China. The experience he gained in the USA made him the most important Chinese scientist in the field of rocket technology after his return in 1955. [2]

First successes

The launch of the first Chinese satellite, called “The East is Red”, took place on April 24, 1970, using a modified CSS-3 intercontinental ballistic missile, which was later named “Long March 1”. The satellite remained in space for a total of 26 days.

The first rumours of a manned Chinese space program emerged as early as 1979. A Shanghai newspaper published pictures of a Chinese astronaut training in a spacesuit. However, a powerful and reliable launch vehicle was still lacking at the time.

It was not until the late 1980s that the Chinese space program took on increasingly ambitious forms. China entered the commercial satellite business and there were initial plans to develop its own space shuttle and a space station. Work was also carried out on new launch vehicles.

In the early 1990s, there was an exchange of technology between Russia and China, which may also explain the similarity between today's Chinese Shenzhou capsule and the Russian Soyuz capsule, even though China always claims to have developed its current “Long March 2F” launcher and the “God Ship” (Shenzhou) on its own, both technologies are likely to have benefited from the Russians' many years of experience in space travel.

China reached for the stars

1992 was a decisive year in Chinese space travel, as it marked the official start of the Chinese manned space program.

Four years later, during a visit by the then director of the Russian Space Agency (RSA), a secret Russian-Chinese space cooperation agreement was concluded and in the same year two Chinese were trained as cosmonauts in the Russian Star City near Moscow, who later became instructors themselves and trained the first 14 taikonauts.

Another important date is November 20, 1999, when the first Shenzhou spacecraft took off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center for an unmanned one-day test flight.

Shenzhou II-IV were also all unmanned, but the missions became increasingly ambitious, with Shenzhou II remaining in space for 8 days and orbiting the Earth 108 times. The main aim of these missions was to test life support systems and solve the re-entry problem. A special feature of Shenzhou IV was the presence of two human-like dummies, equipped with sensors similar to those used in crash tests in the automotive industry.

Yang Liwei
Yang Liwei

As all the unmanned tests were successful, it was only a matter of time before the first Chinese taikonaut opened the door to space. The first manned launch, with taikonaut Yang Liwei on board, took place with Shenzhou V on October 15, 2003 and lasted a total of 21 hours. Since then, 13 further manned missions have followed.

China is currently working on its first space telescope called “Xuntian”, the construction of a modular space station - as China has been excluded from participating in the International Space Station ISS due to the Wolf Amendment [3] (named after former Republican U.S. politician Frank Wolf) from 2011 - as well as the development of a heavy-lift launcher.

With the great progress China is making in space technology, it can no longer be ruled out that a Chinese moon base can be successfully operated in the coming decade.

Previous Chinese space stations:

  • Tiangong-1: The first Chinese space station, Tiangong-1, was launched on September 29, 2011. It served as an experimental test bed for larger, permanent space stations. Tiangong-1 was primarily a manned laboratory station that allowed astronauts to live and work on board to simulate long-term missions in space. The station remained active until 2016, when communication was officially terminated. It entered the Earth's atmosphere uncontrollably in April 2018 and largely burned up on re-entry.

  • Tiangong-2: This space station was developed as an improvement and continuation of the missions of Tiangong-1 and was launched on September 15, 2016. Tiangong-2 was slightly larger and offered improved living conditions and more advanced scientific equipment. It was used for a series of scientific experiments and also served as a platform for testing space technologies. In July 2019, China conducted a controlled re-entry of Tiangong-2, causing it to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere as planned.

Chinese probe missions:






Chang'e 1


China's first lunar probe to produce detailed maps of the lunar surface.


Chang'e 2



Chang'e 3


First soft landing on the moon with a rover (Yutu) that explored the surface.


Chang'e 4


First landing on the far side of the moon, also with a rover (Yutu-2).


Chang'e 5


Return mission that brought lunar rock soil samples to Earth.




Consisting of an orbiter and the lander 'Zhurong,' which successfully landed in the Utopia Planitia region.


Chang'e 6


It launched on 3 May 2024 and the mission is expected to last about 53 days.

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