Display at the entrance to the 2009 flower market at the lunar New Year celebration. A satellite orbits the world, and a large ox (representing The Year of the Ox) is in the foreground. PHOTO BY ROBERT EATON.

China’s space program had its start in 1956 with the development of ballistic missile technology. In recent years, China has made important progress across a broad range of space technologies—including launchers, satellites, and human space flight—and has taken a leading role in regional space cooperation. In 2003, China launched its first astronaut into space on the Shenzhou-5. The human space flight program ultimately plans to create a permanent manned space station.

China is widely regarded as a rising space power. While China’s progress in space technology was slow from its inception until 2001, China has since made marked progress in nearly all areas of space flight technology, including launchers, satellites, and human space flight. China’s space program is designed to assist the country in achieving its military, economic, and political goals. Militarily, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is transforming itself into a military reliant on using information to win wars in which space may play a major role in developing an advanced C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) system as well as developing antisatellite (ASAT) technologies to deny the use of space to potential adversaries. Economically, China’s support for its space program lies in its potential as a driver for economic and technological advancement. Politically, China’s expanding international cooperation on space activities establishes it as a leader in the field with growing influence to shape events. In addition, by participating in a robust space program with high-profile activities, such as human space flight, the Chinese Communist Party demonstrates to the Chinese people that under its leadership China can achieve a more respected world position.


China’s space program was established on October 8, 1956 with a focus on the developing of ballistic missiles to support China’s nuclear weapons program. The first China-built ballistic missile was launched on November 5, 1960 and by 1966 China’s first operational ballistic missile, the Dongfang-2 (DF-2), was entered into service.

China’s first satellite, the Dongfang Hong-1 (DFH-1), was launched on April 24, 1970 and broadcast the song, The East is Red, for 6 days. Shortly thereafter, Mao Zedong (1893–1976) approved a human space flight program, which was given the name Shuguang (or “Dawn”) and also codenamed the 714 Project. The program’s goal was to launch a human into space by 1973. The project suffered setbacks due to lack of funding and the political upheaval caused by the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) and was cancelled in 1975 due to more pressing economic concerns. On the other hand, China successfully launched its first recoverable satellite in the same year, a satellite model that remains in use today performing photo-reconnaissance missions.

China’s space program from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s suffered from a low level of activity with no more than four launches per year. Most launches were of the Shijian (SJ) space experimental satellite or the recoverable satellite. In 1988, China launched its first communications satellite. In 1992 the Chinese government approved a human spaceflight program, and research and development continued throughout the 1990s on the capsule and the launcher, with one unmanned test flight occurring in 1999.

Also in the 1990s China established itself as a low-cost provider of launch services and though the total number of annual launches per year did not increase, the number of satellites launched were increasingly made up of foreign satellites. At one point China was approaching a 9 percent share of the global launch service market. Its success as an international launch provider was put to an end in 1996, though, after the failed launches of a Long March-2E (LM-2E) in 1995 and a LM-3 and LM-3B in 1996. Chinese rockets were deemed to be too unreliable by the international launch insurance market to insure. In addition, satellites containing U.S. components were forbidden to be launched on Chinese rockets after it was determined that a U.S. company had illegally provided the Chinese space industry with export controlled information that was used to correct the launch malfunctions. This ruling effectively shut down China’s commercial space launch efforts.

China’s progress in space technology accelerated in the early twenty-first century with increased funding and a higher profile. During this time, China launched a variety of new satellites, improved its launcher reliability to international standards, initiated a lunar exploration program, and conducted three human space flight missions. During the period from 2001–2005, for example, China launched more satellites than in the previous 31 years combined. China at this time also began to receive international recognition as a leading space power, sparking speculation that a new international space race could result.

Elements of China’s Space Program

China’s space program can be broken down into four main elements: launchers, without which no space program would be possible; satellites, in several varieties; human space flight, centered around the seven (to date) Shenzhou missions, the last three of which were manned; and the lunar program, which hopes to land an unmanned rover on the moon in the near future for exploration purposes.


The Long March series of launchers, named for the Chinese Communists’ 9,600 kilometer march across China from 1934–1935, is China’s main launch vehicle. China has thirteen versions of the Long March, each designed to launch different payloads into different orbits, including Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO), and Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) (See Table 1). The LM-2F is dedicated for human space flight missions and includes an escape tower to separate the space capsule from the rocket in event of mishap. The Long March booster has reached a reliability of 94 percent success rate based on 115 launches at the end of 2008, a figure on a par with international standards. The success rates of the Long March family vary widely depending on launcher, however. The LM-2C continues to be a solid work horse with no failures and thirty launches by mainly launching China’s recoverable satellites. The LM-3, on the other hand, has just a 79 percent success rate.

TABLE 1 Long March Family Success Rates

LM-1 LEO 2 0 100
LM-2 LEO 1 1 0
LM-2C* LEO 30 0 100
LM-2D* LEO 10 0 100
LM-2E* LEO/GEO 7 2 71
LM-2F** LEO 7 0 100
LM-3 GEO 14 3 79
LM-3A* GEO 16 0 100
LM-3B* GEO 11 1 91
LM-3C GEO 1 0 100
LM-4 SSO 7 0 100
LM-4B* LEO/GEO 6 0 100
LM-4C LEO 3 0 100
Total 115 7 94
*Marketed to international customers
**Dedicated for Shenzhou missions
NOTE: LEO: Low Earth Orbit; GEO: Geosynchronous Earth Orbit; SSO: Sun Synchronous Orbit

China is developing a new family of launch vehicles that offer increased reliability and adaptability. These new launchers will, in part, support China’s human space flight and lunar exploration programs by launching a space station into Earth orbit and satellites to the moon. The new generation of rockets will be divided into light, medium, and heavy-lift versions and will be able to send a 1.5- to 25-ton payload into low-Earth orbit (LEO) and a 1.5- to 14-ton payload into geosynchronous orbit (GEO). The first launch of the new rocket is scheduled to occur by 2013.


China has made steady progress in satellite development since 2001. China now has four different types of remote sensing satellites—meteorological, ocean, ground, and radar—in orbit on a continuous basis. These systems are able to provide different types of information to monitor weather and disasters, as well as providing information for national security applications. In addition, in 2000 China also established its first satellite navigation and positioning system, Beidou.

Recoverable Satellites

The recoverable satellites 返回式 are China’s most frequently launched satellites. These satellites are used for reconnaissance missions and remain in orbit for no more than 30 days. At the end of their mission, the satellites return to earth via a ground landing with the aid of a parachute, at which point the imagery is removed for analysis. Recoverable satellite technologies, such as heat shielding, were the basis for China’s human space flight capsule.


China launched a total of five Yaogan 遥感 remote sensing satellites by the end of 2008. Their exact nature is unknown and the China government has only stated that they are intended for scientific experiments, land survey, crop yield assessment, and disaster monitoring. There is speculation that this series of satellites is composed of optical imagery and synthetic aperture radar satellites, however.


Fengyun 风云 class meteorological satellites provide data such as cloud cover and precipitation to China’s National Weather Bureau. By 2015, China plans to build a stable observation satellite system and achieve directable three-dimensional observation of the Earth’s land masses, oceans, and atmosphere. The first Fengyun satellite, the FY-1A, was launched on 7 September 1988 and was equipped with four visible channels, three near infrared channels, one short wave infrared channel, and two long wave infrared channels. Subsequent versions of the satellite have been improved. The FY-2C was launched on 19 October 2004 and was China’s first non-experimental meteorological satellite. It was officially put into operation on 1 June 2005.


The first Ziyuan 资源 satellite was launched on 14 October 1999 and is a joint project with Brazil, in which China has a 70 percent stake. It was equipped with sensors to conduct photo-reconnaissance of the earth, including a three-meter optical imagery resolution, and 80-meter and 160-meter resolution infrared sensors. It also has two wide band imagers with a resolution of 256 meters. By March 2002, Ziyuan satellites had already imaged China more than 23,000 times and covered 96 percent of Chinese territory. In 2004, a network of three Ziyuan satellites was established to provide timely coverage of the Earth. China has also established a database of satellite imagery with an archive of 800,000 images using the Ziyuan satellites.


Haiyang 海洋 ocean observation satellites conduct environmental observation of the oceans by collecting data on the characteristics of seawater, including chlorophyll density, sea surface temperature, suspended sand content, and maritime contamination. The first Haiyang was launched on 15 May 2002 while the second was launched in April 2007. They use visible light and infrared spectral coverage to collect data on water and are equipped with remote sensors that can transfer digital images back to earth.


The Beidou 北斗 satellite system is a regional navigation and positioning system. The first two Beidou satellites were launched on 31 October and 21 December 2000. After the launch of these two satellites, China was said to have established its own satellite navigation and positioning system to be used primarily for road, rail, and ocean traffic. The third Beidou satellite was launched on 25 May 2003. Beidou is based on a system called radio determination satellite service (RDSS) involving at least two satellites in geostationary orbit, at least one ground station, and customer receiver/transmitters. This system can achieve accuracies up to 20 meters with the use of multiple ground stations. The Beidou system can also provide communication between user terminals and ground stations. It will eventually be replaced by a system similar to the U.S. global positioning system (GPS) that will be free of charge.

Communication Satellites

Chinese communication satellites are based on the satellite bus of the Dongfanghong-3 (DFH-3) and DFH-4, but when launched are given the designation of Chinasat or Sinosat. Chinese communication satellites are used to broadcast television programming to the entire nation and to bring telephone service to the rural areas of China. By the end of 2005, the Chinese government reported that 98 percent of administrative villages now have phone service. China for the first time exported satellites by building and launching communication satellites for Nigeria (Nigcomsat-1) and Venezuela (Venesat-1) in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

Double Star

The Double Star 双星 satellite project is the result of an agreement signed on 9 July 2001 between the China National Space Agency and the European Space Agency (ESA) to research the effects of the sun on the Earth’s environment. China’s two satellites have joined four ESA satellites of the Cluster project to form a monitoring network. The first launch occurred on 30 December 2003 and the second satellite was launched on 25 July 2004.

Human Space Flight

China’s human space flight program is its space industry’s most difficult and largest mission. China has conducted seven launches, the last three of which were manned. On 15 October 2003, China launched its first astronaut into space on the Shenzhou-5. This mission lasted less than 24 hours but proved that China was technologically capable of sending a human into orbit and returning him to Earth safely. China’s second manned space flight occurred on 12 October 2005 and lasted five days with a crew of two. China’s third manned mission was launched on September 25, 2008 and lasted three days. The mission of Shenzhou-7 was to conduct an extravehicular activity. China’s human space flight program is planned to eventually result in a permanent manned space station.

Lunar Program

China’s lunar exploration program, known as Chang’e, was officially announced in January 2003. The program is composed of three stages. The first stage began in 2007 and involved sending a satellite to take three-dimensional images of the moon and ended on March 1, 2009 when the satellite was purposefully crashed onto the lunar service for scientific reasons. The second phase will begin before the end of 2011 and will involve landing an unmanned space vehicle on the moon that will carry a lunar-rover, a seismograph for detection of “moon-quakes,” and a telescope. The final stage is to be completed before 2020 and will involve sending an unmanned space vehicle to the moon to take samples of the lunar soil that will then be sent back to the earth via a return vehicle.

Launch Centers

China has three launch centers to serve different types of orbits. China has also announced that it will build a fourth launch center on the island province of Hainan, off China’s south coast.

Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center

The Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, located in Gansu Province in northwestern China, was founded in 1958 and is China’s first and most widely used launch center. The launch center is used to launch satellites into low and medium earth orbits. Most notably, Jiuquan is used for China’s human space flight missions.

Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center

The Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center, located in Shanxi Province, was founded in 1966. The launch center is used to launch satellites into sun synchronous orbits.

Xichang Satellite Launch Center

The Xichang Satellite Launch Center, located in Sichuan Province, began operation in 1984 and is used to launch satellites into geostationary orbits.

Wenchang Satellite Launch Center

The Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, located in Hainan Province, was approved in 2008. It is scheduled to be completed in 2012 with the first launch to be conducted in 2013. Due to its closer proximity to the equator, rockets will require less energy to reach orbit. Consequently, Wenchang will be used to launch heavier payloads, such as a space station and lunar lander, into orbit.

Further reading

Johnson-Freese, J. (1998). The Chinese space program: A mystery in a maze. Malabar, FL: Krieger.

Harvey, B. (2004). China’s space program: From conception to manned spaceflight. Chichester, U.K.: Praxis.

Pollpeter, K. (2008). Building for the future: China’s progress in space technology during the Tenth 5-Year Plan and the U.S. Response. Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute Press.

Steer one’s boat where the winds lead.


Kàn fēng shǐ duò

Source: Pollpeter, Kevin. (2009). Space Program. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2068–2073. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

“Roaming Outer Space in an Airship” 1962. COLLECTION STEFAN LANDSBERGER.

Space Program (Tàikōng jìhuà 太空计划)|Tàikōng jìhuà 太空计划 (Space Program)

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