Library Index » Science Encyclopedia » Part 2 Space Organizations: U.S. Military, Foreign, and Private - U.s. Military Space Programs, Space Agencies Around The World, Russia, Europe

Part 2 Space Organizations: U.S. Military, Foreign, and Private - China

chinese tsien program rocket

China's space program is overseen by the China National Space Administration and operated by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). The CASC is a state-run enterprise that develops and produces rockets, spacecraft, and related products. It has conducted satellite launches since 1970. CASC launch sites include Jiuquan in the Gobi desert, Taiyuan in northern China, and Xichang in southeastern China.

Tsien Hsue-shen

The Chinese space program began in the late 1950s under the direction of rocket engineer Tsien Hsue-shen (1911–). Tsien was born in China, but immigrated to the United States during the 1930s, where he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech). He was a key member of the rocketry club at Cal Tech that evolved into NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He was also instrumental in the U.S. program to acquire and apply German rocket technology at the end of World War II. In 1950 Tsien was accused of being a communist spy and had his security clearance revoked. At the time he was pursuing U.S. citizenship.

In 1955, after five years under virtual house arrest, Tsien was deported to China. There he was put in charge of the nation's budding space program. He joined the Communist Party in 1958. Under his leadership China developed very successful satellite and missile systems. These included the anti-ship missile called Haiying (Sea Eagle) by the Chinese and dubbed Silkworm by the Western media. During the Cold War, China sold Silkworms to a number of third-world countries considered unfriendly to the United States. Tsien also led development of the Changzheng (Long March) rockets that became the primary launch vehicle of the Chinese space program.

During the late 1960s Tsien fell out of favor with the Chinese leadership and was removed from his post. This disgrace resulted in Tsien receiving little credit within China for his accomplishments. However, the Western world considers him the father of the Chinese space program. In her 1995 biography of Tsien, Thread of the Silkworm, Iris Chang asserts that deporting the brilliant rocket scientist was "one of the most monumental blunders committed by the United States."

The Long March into Space

On April 24, 1970, the first Chinese satellite was launched into Earth orbit. It was propelled into space by a Long March rocket. Oddly enough the powerful rocket was named in memory of a 1930s retreat across China by thousands of communist soldiers. They were fleeing from the national forces they had hoped to overthrow. The communist soldiers were led by Mao Tse-tung. During a civil war in the 1940s Mao's troops were victorious, and Mao assumed power over the People's Republic of China. He held this position until his death in 1976. China's first satellite was called Mao-1 in his honor.

Since the 1970s China has conducted numerous satellite launches using Long March rockets. During the 1990s development began on capsules capable of carrying animals, and later humans, into space. In 1999 the first such spacecraft, Shenzhou 1, successfully completed fourteen orbits around Earth. (Shenzhou means "Divine Vessel" in English.) The Shenzhou series was updated with newer, more powerful Long March rockets throughout the early 2000s.

On October 15, 2003, China conducted its first human spaceflight. A Chinese "taikonaut" named Yang Liwei (1965–) was launched aboard Shenzhou 5. Liwei spent twenty-one hours and twenty-three minutes in space and completed fourteen orbits. He became a national hero. On October 12, 2005, Shenzhou 6 carried two taikonauts into space: Fei Junlong (1965–) and Nie Haisheng (1964–). They spent just over four days orbiting the Earth before touching down safely in Inner Mongolia.

In 2003 China announced its intention to send a robotic orbiter to the moon before the end of the decade. The mission will be called Chang'e-1 in honor of the Chinese moon goddess. As of February 2006 the launch was scheduled for 2007. Future Chinese plans call for development of a space station in Earth orbit, interplanetary robotic probes, and a crewed lunar landing. The country has shown keen interest in participating in international space ventures and has such agreements with Russia, Brazil, and the European Space Agency. In 2003 the U.S. Congressional Research Service estimated that China spends approximately $2 billion a year on its space program.

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