China has emerged as one of the most successful and strong countries in recent years, establishing its supremacy in space exploration, research, and technology, and achieving unprecedented progress. What is the motivation behind such constant growth and lofty goals? To grasp this, we must first understand how China’s space programme functions and has evolved into what it is now.
Early history of China’s space program
China was one of the first countries in the world to attempt to build rockets to launch into space, however, they were unsuccessful at the time. In 900 A.D., the first crude rockets were developed in China. China’s space programme began in the 1950s, during the Cold War era, partially in response to worries that the United States and the Soviet Union would soon be lofting weapons into space when the world was divided into two political camps battling for domination; the US and its western allies on the one hand, and the Soviets and their allies on the other. Despite not being an ally of the Soviet Union, the United States regarded China as a threat.
China’s Ministry of National Defense established China’s first rocket missile development organisation, the Fifth Research Institute, on October 8, 1956. As a result, advancements in space exploration technologies will follow the progress of nuclear technology.
By 1958, China had completed the construction of the Dongfeng-1 (DF-1) launch vehicle, a Chinese counterpart of the Soviet R-2 rocket (itself a Soviet version of the German V-2). This was made feasible by a 1950s technology transfer initiative between the two countries, which allowed Chinese experts to reverse-engineer the Soviet design. On July 19th, 1964, China sent its first living creatures into space, eight white mice, and successfully recovered them from the Guangde Rocket Launch Site (Base 603) using the T-7A, a revised T-7 sounding rocket.
Several programmes connected to China’s space programme were cancelled after Mao’s death in 1976, and progress toward a crewed trip stagnated. However, by the late 1970s and 1980s, China’s space programme had achieved a number of significant milestones.
Modern History of China’s space program
The China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the China Science and Industry Aerospace Corporation (CASIC) were established in 1993 to overhaul China’s space programme. The former was in charge of planning and developing space activities, while the latter was in charge of space-related technology development.
Several significant milestones were achieved with the CNSA’s help. The Shenzhou spacecraft, a modified version of Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft designed to assist China’s crewed space programme, was launched for the first time in 1999 by the CNSA.
As part of China’s first manned mission, Yang Liwei became the first Chinese astronaut to journey into space onboard Shenzhou on October 13, 2003. Yang’s capsule returned to Earth on the 15th after circling the Earth for 21 hours. China became the world’s third country to send a human into space and successfully return them to Earth.
The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (the Chang’e programme, named after the Chinese Moon goddess) was launched by the CNSA the same year, with the goal of sending a series of robotic flights to the Moon in preparation for a crewed trip. China went on to improve its arsenal of launch vehicles, the Long March series rockets, which are even now one of the best class of launch vehicles globally. .(More on China’s Lunar Mission here.)(More on the Long March series rockets here.)
In July of 2020, Tianwen-1 launched, becoming China’s first interplanetary mission to take to space. The Tianwen-1 mission includes a Mars orbiter, lander, rover, cameras, and various other science instruments. This also made China be the only country to be successful to do so on its maiden attempt. (More on China’s Mars Mission here.)
China is also in the progress of building its own space station, the Tiangong, which is one of a kind because China was banned from joining the ISS back in 2011. This speaks volumes about China’s determination to increase its dominance in space. It has already launched the core module of the station, Tianhe, and has begun its construction, with the station in construction already housing a crew of 4 astronauts. (More on China’s Space Station here.)
China’s achievement, like that of most other country space programmes, stems from the post-World War II era’s nuclear weapons race and space race. After decades of following in the footsteps of the United States and the Soviet Union, China began to establish its own goals in order to become a significant space power.
China is now the world’s third-largest space power (behind Russia and the United States). In the next years, the CNSA has a number of ambitious plans in place that they think will propel them to the top of the space superpower rankings, with the potential to eventually overtake them. (More on China’s future space plans here.)