With the recent launch of the Shenzhou-15 mission, China’s space station, Tiangong, will wrap up the last stage of construction and enter the first stage of application and development. Construction of the space station is a milestone in China’s space exploration, as it completes the final goal of the “three-step” strategy of China’s manned space program initiated 30 years ago.
The Beginning of China’s Space Exploration
China’s space program began development in the 1950s. By 1964, China has launched its first biological rocket into space. In 1970, China became the fifth country to launch a satellite into orbit, the Dongfanghong-1.
Since then, China continues to make advancements in rocket development resulting in the Long March rockets, and has developed different types of satellites such as meteorological, communicational, and earth observational satellites. In addition, the country began making more ambitious plans in space exploration, including its manned space program, BeiDou navigation satellite system, lunar exploration, Mars exploration, and so forth.
China’s Manned Space Program
China’s manned space program began in 1992 with a three-step strategy. The plan was coded “Project 921” as it was approved on September 21, 1992. The first step of the program was to send astronauts into space and bring them back safely. The second step was to develop advanced space flight techniques and technologies including extra-vehicular activity and orbital docking. The third step is to assemble and operate a permanent manned space station.
The first step of the program was completed in 2005, after the launch of six different spacecrafts, Shenzhou-1 to Shenzhou-6, between 1999 to 2005. The first four Shenzhou missions were unmanned, and Shenzhou-5 became China’s first manned space mission with astronaut Yang Liwei sent into space in 2003. This was followed by the Shenzhou-6 mission where two astronauts were sent into space in 2005.
The second step of the program was completed in 2017, with the launches of five Shenzhou spacecrafts from 2008 to 2016, the experimental space lab Tiangong-1 in 2011, and the space lab Tiangong-2 in 2016. The Tiangong labs were sent into space to accumulate experience for developing China’s permanent space station. Orbital docking and docking tests were carried out when the Shenzhou spacecrafts and the Tiangong labs met in space. Astronauts from the Shenzhou spacecrafts worked on the labs to conduct space experiments and technical tests, and performed extra-vehicular activities as they walked in space.
The third step of the program will reach completion by the end of 2022. In 2021, China officially kicked-off the in-orbit construction of its space station, Tiangong, with the launch of its core module Tianhe. In 2022, the two lab modules of the space station, Wentian and Mengtian, were launched into space. By November 2022, with the three modules in space, the basic structure of the space station was completed. In addition, three manned spaceships, Shenzhou-13 to Shenzhou-15, have been launched into space to help with the construction and operation of the space station.
Completion of the Tiangong space station will mark the successful conclusion of China’s three-step manned space program.
The BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS)
In 1994, China began to develop its own navigation satellite system, BeiDou, with a three-step strategy.
The first step was completed by the end of 2000, where the first BeiDou system, BDS-1 entered service and began providing positioning services in China. At this point, China became the third country in the world with a navigation satellite system.
The second step was completed in 2012, as the second BeiDou system, BDS-2, was completed, providing passive positioning services to the Asia-Pacific region.
The third step was completed in 2020, when the third BeiDou system, BDS-3, was completed and formally commissioned to provide satellite navigation services worldwide, marking the successful conclusion of the three-step strategy.
China’s Lunar Exploration
China’s three-step lunar exploration program, known as “Project Chang’e”, began in 2004 with the aim of orbiting, landing, and bringing back samples from the moon.
On Oct. 24, 2007, China launched Chang’e-1, its first lunar probe, making China the fifth country in the world to develop and launch a lunar probe on its own.
On Oct. 1, 2010, Chang’e-2 was sent into space. The probe took pictures of Sinus Iridium, or the Bay of Rainbows, the proposed landing site of the Chang’e-3.
On Dec. 2, 2013, China launched the Chang’e-3 probe with its first moon rover aboard. Chang’e-3 landed on the moon on Dec. 14, marking the first time that China has sent a spacecraft to soft land on the surface of an extraterrestrial body.
On Dec. 8, 2018, China launched the Chang’e-4 probe, which made the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the moon on Jan. 3, 2019.
On Nov. 24, 2020, China launched the Chang’e-5 probe. On Dec. 17, Chang’e-5 return to Earth, bringing back the country’s first samples collected from the moon.
The return of Chang’e-5 marked a successful conclusion of China’s three-step lunar exploration program. Next, China will enter a new phase of lunar exploration with the goal of developing an autonomous lunar research station near the moon’s south pole. The launch of Chang’e-6, scheduled to take flight in 2025, will be kicking off this phase.
China’s Mars Exploration
China’s Mars exploration marks the beginning of the country’s planetary exploration program, where the missions under this program are collectively known as “Tianwen”. The first mission started from Mars, and will expand to Jupiter and more planets in the future.
On April 22, 2016, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced that China aimed to launch its first mission to Mars around 2020. The mission will complete orbiting, landing, and roving the red planet.
On July 23, 2020, China launched the Tianwen-1 probe into space, where it landed on Mars on May 14, 2021. As of December 2022, the Tianwen-1 probe has spent more than 19 months on Mars.
Chronology of China’s Space Exploration
With numerous achievements in space exploration spanning over five decades, the major events in China’s space exploration since the 1950s is listed below:
Oct. 8, 1956: China opens its first institute on missile and rocket research, the No. 5 Research Institute attached to the Ministry of National Defense, with scientist Qian Xuesen as the first director.
July 19, 1964: China launches its first biological experiment into space: a rocket carrying albino rats, from Guangde County in east China’s Anhui Province. This is an important step forward in China’s space exploration.
April 24, 1970: The first Chinese artificial satellite, Dongfanghong-1 (DFH-1), was launched at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China’s Gansu province. China becomes the fifth country in the world to send a satellite into orbit.
Nov. 26, 1975: China launches its first recoverable satellite from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, which returns to earth three days later. China becomes the third country in the world able to operate recoverable satellites.
March 5, 1986: President Deng Xiaoping approves a science and technology project code-named “863”, where one aspect of the project was to develop the country’s crewed spacecraft.
Sept. 7, 1988: China launches its first meteorological satellite FY-1A at the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center, north China’s Shanxi Province.
April 7, 1990: China launches carrier rocket Long March CZ-3 from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China’s Sichuan province. The rocket sends AsiaSat-1 communication satellite into orbit, marking the start of China’s commercial launch service.
July 16, 1990: China launches Long March CZ-2E, a cluster carrier rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, laying a foundation for manned spacecraft launches.
Sept. 21, 1992: President Jiang Zemin approves “Project 921,” a three-step plan of China’s manned space program with the final goal of building a space station.
1994: China begins development of its own navigation satellite system, BeiDou, with a three-step strategy.
Nov. 20, 1999: China launches an unmanned spacecraft, Shenzhou-1, for the first time from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, a key step toward sending the country’s astronauts into orbit.
2000: The first BeiDou system, BDS-1, entered service and began providing positioning services in China. China becomes the third country in the world with its own navigation satellite system.
Jan. 10, 2001: The second unmanned spacecraft, Shenzhou-2, launches successfully from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, and carried out scientific research projects in space.
March 25, 2002: China sends unmanned spacecraft Shenzhou-3 into orbit from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. After circling the earth 108 times, the craft returns to earth, landing in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region on April 1.
Dec. 30, 2002: Shenzhou-4, the fourth unmanned spacecraft, launches successfully from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.
Oct. 15, 2003: Shenzhou-5, China’s first manned spacecraft, blasts off into space from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, sending Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei into orbit. China becomes the third country in the world to send a man into space with its own rocket. Yang Liwei spent about 21 hours in space.