Shenzhou and China’s Space Odyssey

Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 24

China achieved another major milestone with the successful launch of its second manned spacecraft in less than two years on October 12, 2005, when Shenzhou (Divine Vessel) VI blasted into orbit atop a Chinese Changzheng (Long March) rocket from the Jiuquan Space Launch Center. After circling the earth for over 115 hours and traveling 3.25 million kilometers, Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng, the Chinese taikonauts, piloted the spacecraft to a perfect touch-down in Inner Mongolia on October 17.

Shenzhou VI’s flawless flight from lift-off to touch-down further consolidates China’s position as only the third country to put its own astronauts into orbit, after Russia and the United States. It is a great boost to the Chinese, from the scientists and technicians involved in the manned spaceflight project to the general public, as the country showcases its achievements to the world and prepares for the next phase in space exploration.

Project 921

China’s space ambitions date back to 1970 when its first satellite, Dongfanghong-1, was launched into orbit, transmitting back the Mao-appraising song, “The East Is Red.” In March 1986, Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s reforms and opening up, endorsed “Project 863,” a program proposed by a group of prominent Chinese scientists seeking to stimulate research and advance the country’s science and technology in strategic areas, including manned space programs. On September 21, 1992, the Chinese government approved “Project 921,” a three-phase program aimed at establishing its place as a space-faring nation within a decade. The first phase would involve successful launches of manned spacecraft. This would be followed by lunar explorations and deployment into orbit of Chinese space labs, as well as docking and a space walk, set around for 2007. The third phase will see China establish its own permanent space stations [1].

As China embarked on its ambitious manned space flight program, the world’s space superpowers, the former Soviet Union (now Russia) and the United States, had commanded space for well over three decades, with more than 200 space flights and over 900 astronauts sent into space. Yet with commitments of resources (USD $2.3 billion spent over the last decade) and coordinated efforts of several hundred-thousand scientists and technicians and supporting staff from over 3,000 different organizations, China was able to make quantum steps and realize its space dream in a relatively short span of time. Shenzhou I, the first unmanned spacecraft was successfully launched using CZ-2F from Jiuquan on November 20, 1999. Three more unmanned flights (January 30, 2001, March 25, 2002, and December 30, 2002) were launched, with progressively more sophisticated equipment and live animals being tested onboard before the first manned space launch on October 15, 2003. Lt Col. Yang Liwei became the first Chinese astronaut to circle space (Jiefangjun Bao, October 28).

China as a Space Power

The Shenzhou VI flight was hailed as a complete success. It achieved a number of so-called “firsts:” the first two-man flight; the first in extending the duration of the flight from about 21 hours to close to five days; the first flight that involved the performance by the two astronauts of some scientific experiments and movement from the return module into the orbital module. The spacecraft itself incorporated over 110 improvements over Shenzhou V. The CZ-2F, the launch vehicle, also underwent 75 technical improvements. The overall safety and reliability of the spacecraft was enhanced so much that the launch was broadcast live on television—a testament to confidence (China Daily, October 12).

With Shenzhou VI, China has firmly established its place as a major space power. While the Shenzhou manned space program is meant to boost China’s prestige and garner the respect of the international community, it also has required and indeed helped stimulate advances in the country’s aerospace, computer, life science, space material science, astronomic observations, and many other areas of scientific and technological developments. Over the last decade, it has made significant progress in improving rocket launch technologies; launching communication, meteorological, and navigation satellites; and developing the requisite infrastructure from launch centers, space city, to space program organization and manpower [2]. Indeed, a new generation of confident and experienced space scientists and managers has emerged, and many of them are now occupying key positions of China’s manned space program.

China became the third country to offer international satellite launch service in the 1990s with the Long March rocket series, with Shenzhou VI its 46th consecutive successful launch. This further promotes the launch vehicle’s credibility and reliability, providing for potential future commercial launches in the international market. China’s ability to launch and recover a wide range of satellites not only testifies to its advancement in satellite technologies but also makes significant contribution to meeting the country’s development needs in environmental surveillance, weather forecasting, earth science and navigation, and the provision of commercial services to growing communication needs, such as cell phone networks (People’s Daily, October 20).

While China has achieved much of the progress through its own efforts, it has benefited from cooperation with, and assistance from, Russia. In March 1994, Beijing and Moscow signed an agreement on space cooperation between the Russian Space Agency and the China National Space Administration. Russia agreed to provide certain equipment, technologies, expertise, and training to the burgeoning Chinese manned space program, according to an August 2002 report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Chinese sources identified a number of areas of specific cooperation ranging from “docking system installations, model spaceships, flight control, and means of life support.” Chinese astronauts received training at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City outside Moscow (Scientific American, October 2003). In addition, the Chinese reportedly copied Russian pressure suits. Western analysts point to the remarkable similarity between the Russian Soyuz TM and the Chinese spacecraft Shenzhou, although many also agree that the Chinese have made modifications in addition to selected purchases and copying.

Sino-Russian space cooperation is likely to continue in the coming years as China moves toward lunar and deep space explorations and the next phases of manned space program. Indeed, at the recently concluded 10th regular prime ministerial meeting, the two sides agreed to “explore the possibility of cooperation in moon and deep space exploration” as well as joint development of large space projects (Xinhua, November 5). In addition, China has also maintained and seeks to expand international space cooperation with other countries. Major current programs include the CBERS (China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite) project and Chinese participation in the European Space Agency’s Galileo program.

China was instrumental in launching the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) in late October 2005, which includes eight countries. According to the People’s Daily (October 28), its objectives include the following: to further space cooperation and technology exchanges for peaceful use and to promote economic and social developments.

Sino-U.S. space cooperation has stalled since the late 1980s in the aftermath of the Tiananmen incident. While in 1995, the two countries signed a commercial space launch agreement whereby the U.S. government would grant export licenses for American-made satellites to be launched on Chinese rockets, Washington remained concerned over Chinese access to space technologies with military applications that could improve its missile systems. The program was effectively suspended in the wake of the Loral/Hughes investigation and the release of the Cox Report that alleged, among other things, that the Chinese were using international space cooperation to enhance its military space capabilities [3]. Washington remains vigilant over space dual-use technology transfers. For instance, at the World Space Congress held in Houston, Texas in 2002, space managers and scientists from 30 Chinese companies and government agencies registered to participate and present papers and exhibits. However, half of the nearly 100 Chinese seeking entry, including the leader of the Chinese delegation, Luan Enjie, director of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), were denied visas [4]. China’s inquiry for participation in the International Space Station (ISS) was summarily rejected by the United States. This most likely accounts for China’s willingness to seek space cooperation with the European Union and countries such as Russia.

There are signs that this situation may change. NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin congratulated the Chinese on the Shenzhou VI launch, stating that “China, once again, has demonstrated that it is among the elite number of countries capable of human spaceflight. We wish them well on their mission, and we look forward to [their] safe return” (Aviation Week & Space Technology, October 17). In a sign of its growing confidence but also a gesture of goodwill, China accepted U.S. offers to help Shenzhou VI avoid other spacecraft and debris and assistance in search and rescue in case the Chinese astronauts were forced to make an emergency landing. Indeed, prominent American space analysts have called on the U.S. to seek cooperation with China to both shape the future direction of China’s space programs, as well as revive America’s own through partnership [5].

Military Space?

There has been much speculation about the military significance of China’s successful manned space program. For instance, Western analysts point to the fact that the Chinese manned space program has always been under the command of the PLA General Armament Director—Gen. Cao Gangchuan for Shenzhou V and Gen. Chen Bingde for Shenzhou VI. Many of the programs carried out through the Shenzhou series are suspected of having dual-use significance, such as the high-resolution imaging system and reconnaissance capabilities.

The July 2005 U.S. Defense Department report on the Chinese military voiced concerns over China’s space program, pointing out that military capability and strategy “is likely one of the primary drivers behind Beijing’s space endeavors and a critical component” of the country’s financial investment in space. U.S. analysts are also concerned that growing Chinese space capabilities would enable the country to develop and deploy anti-satellite weapons (Agence France Presse, October 12).

Beijing dismisses such speculations, emphasizing the peaceful intention of China’s manned space program. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao declared: “We launch Shenzhou VI out of a peaceful purpose.” Chinese analysts suggest that while space programs involve many dual-use technologies, whether or not a country will exploit the military usage will largely depend on the political will (Renmin Wang, October 26). China, for its part, has advocated the negotiation of an international treaty banning the weaponization of outer space.

Clearly, China’s manned space and associate programs also enable the country to develop and improve its military applications, including space-based intelligence gathering, navigation, and guidance, and jamming. Speculations aside, any Chinese military space programs will be driven by security and diplomatic considerations, and will likely be reactive to developments that Beijing views as negatively affecting its security environment. Indeed, the impetus for Chinese development for space-base military capabilities has been provided by the U.S. display of space dominance during the 1990-91 Gulf War, the Kosovo intervention in the late 1990s and, most recently, the Afghan operation and the war in Iraq, which demonstrated the growing gap between the U.S. Revolution in Military Affairs and the other militaries.

Next Step

China’s manned space program appears to be on target to meet scheduled goals. In February 2005, the Chinese government approved the initiation of the second phase of China’s manned space program. During this phase, China aims to achieve two technological breakthroughs: one is a space walk by astronauts; the other is docking by two spacecraft. The first is to be accomplished when Shenzhou VII is launched, tentatively scheduled for mid-2007. At about the same time, an exploration satellite for moon orbit is also planned for launch. The world will be watching as China reaches out to the stars.

Yet significant hurdles remain to the Chinese space aspirations. The lift-capacities of the CZ-series rockets need to be increased from the current maximum of 9.5 to 25 tons. Beijing’s space budgets for the entire Shenzhou program so far, while sizable in Chinese science and technology R&D, are only half of what NASA spends annually. With regard to other areas of space sciences and explorations, huge gaps continue to exist between current Chinese capabilities and those possessed by the United States and Russia. One thing is certain: as China will proceed with resources and commitments, major breakthroughs can be expected, as will future achievements.


1. Cheng Gang and Zhang Ni, “What Next in China’s Manned Space Program,” Global Times, October 19, 2005, p.3.

2. Brian Harvey, China’s Space Program: From Conception to Manned Spaceflight (Chichester: Springer, 2004).

3. James H. Hughes, “The Current Status of China’s Military Space Program,” The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Vol.27, No.4 (Winter 2002), pp.403-404.

4. Craig Covault, “Chinese Highlight World Space Congress,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, October 15, 2002; Covault, “U.S. Snubs China at Space Congress,” AW&ST, October 19, 2002.

5. Joan Johnson-Freese, “Space Wei Qi: The Launch of Shenzhou V,” Naval War College Review, Vol.LVII, No.2 (Spring 2004), p.122.