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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 October, 2003, 11:34 GMT 12:34 UK
China's long march into space
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor

It is said that fireworks were discovered in China in the second century BC, by a cook who used too much saltpetre on the fire.

Fireworks, AP
Everything goes with a bang in Beijing
Also according to legend, a Ming dynasty (1368-1644) man named Wan Hu attempted to become China's first astronaut.

He strapped himself to a chair and then held kites in each hand while servants lit gunpowder-packed bamboo tubes attached to his seat.

A roar followed. After the smoke had dissipated, the chair was gone, and so was Wan Hu.

Given that fireworks - in which combustion produces thrust - are the basis of modern rockets, it is fitting that China wants to be part of the most exclusive space club.

'The East is Red'

China has had space ambitions for almost 40 years.

While, during the 1960s, it developed its own intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear capability, seen as essential for any superpower, it watched the space race between the US and the USSR, based on converted ICBMs, and made plans of its own.

Some trace China's space capability back to Tsien Hsue-shen, an American-educated scientist who worked in military rocket research after he left the US during the McCarthy repression of the 1950s.

Hsue-shen was among US engineers who scoured post-war Germany for rocket technology. He even interviewed Werner von Braun.

Returning to China, he used his experience to help develop their first ICBM, from which Chinese modern-day space rockets are derived.

The first phase of China in space culminated with the 1970 launch of a Chang Zheng rocket, which placed its first satellite into orbit and transmitted "The East Is Red" as it circled the Earth.

In the 1970s, China had spaceflight ambitions but its 1972 Shuguang 1 (Dawn 1) project to put its own astronaut in space was cancelled following a political purge.

Solo effort

Later that decade, the programme briefly resurfaced only to be cancelled again in 1980.

Then came Project 863. It was a long-term initiative to transform China's science and technology in fields like space research and genetic engineering.

Yang Zemin and space worker
The space effort has always had a strong political dimension
In April 1992, the associated Project 921 was commissioned by President Jiang Zemin who finally gave the go-ahead for a manned space programme.

Project 921 was altered in the 1990s when it became clear that the ailing Russian space effort was willing to sell its technology.

In September 1994, Jiang Zemin visited Star City - the Russian cosmonaut training centre - and a deal was signed in March 1995 for two military pilots - Wu Jie and Li Qinglong - to train alongside the Russians.

Later they returned to China to train other candidate astronauts.

But although China did benefit from collaboration with Russia, the high price demanded by the Russians more often than not spurred China to develop systems and solutions of its own.

Onward and upward

Prior to the first manned flight, four Shenzhou spacecraft have already gone into orbit.

Shenzhou 1, the first test vehicle, was launched on 20 November 1999, and spent less than a day in orbit.

During each of the three subsequent flights (launched on 10 January 2001, 25 March 2002, and 30 December 2002), the spacecraft spent a week in orbit as progressively more sophisticated systems were tested.

Shenzhou 2 reportedly carried a monkey, a dog and a rabbit to test life-support systems.

Shenzhou 4 was called a human-capable vessel, with all the equipment needed to accommodate three astronauts.

It has been reported that astronauts took part in the countdown inside the spacecraft, leaving it only a few hours before lift-off.

So the Shenzhou programme is developing and manned spaceflight enters a historic new phase.

The BBC's Tory Milne reports
"The government's secrecy has done little to dull the public's interest"

Country profile: China
24 May 03  |  Country profiles


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