All You Need To Know About the Chinese Space Program

China's journey from being a mere contender in the space race to becoming the world's third largest space power.
Matthew S. Williams
The Long March 5 rocketCNSA

The Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) is one of the fastest-growing space agencies in the world today. From its relatively humble beginnings sixty years ago, it has come to be one of the biggest contenders in the modern-day space race.


In a previous article, we discussed the top 5 space programs around the world. China was an obvious inclusion, given the leaps and bounds the country has made with its space program of late. But in order to highlight their vast achievements, a more in-depth look is necessary.

And in the coming years and decades, the CNSA has a number of impressive feats in store. Let's take a look at the Chinese space program - past, present, and future...


Like Russia and the United States, China's space program began during the Cold War era, when the world was more or less divided into two political camps vying for supremacy. On the one side, the United States and its western allies; on the other, the Soviets and their allies. Although not allied with the USSR, China was considered by the US to be a threat.

All You Need To Know About the Chinese Space Program
Monument for T-7M sounding rocket was successfully launched in Nanhui. Source: Fayhoo/Wikipedia Commons

Both the United States and the Soviet Union had also developed nuclear weapons at this point, and China had even been threatened with their use in 1953, in an attempt to force them to negotiate an end to the Korean War and to cease attacks against territories that were considered part of the Republic of China.

In response, Chairman Mao used the occasion of the Central Committee meeting of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on January 15th, 1955 to announce his decision to commence a Chinese nuclear program (codenamed 02).

An additional kick came in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite (Sputnik-1) into orbit. In response, Mao declared that China also needed to create its own space program (codenamed Project 581). The first step in this program was to launch a satellite by 1959 to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the Communist Revolution of 1949.

These measures were inspired in part by China's desire not to be left behind or kept at a strategic disadvantage. In addition, Mao was also looking to garner respect for the revolutionary regime from groupings such as the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact countries, the United States, NATO countries, etc.

On October 8th, 1956, China’s first rocket missile development agency - the Fifth Research Institute - was established by China's Ministry of National Defense. Henceforth, developments in space exploration technologies would mirror growth in the development of nuclear technology.

All You Need To Know About the Chinese Space Program
Dong Feng 1 (DF-1) rocket at the Beijing Military Museum. Source: Martin Trolle Mikkelsen/Wikimedia Commons

China received a further push to develop a crewed space program by 1967, which was in response to the news that the Soviet Union and the United States were both pursuing their own lunar programs.

With the death of Stalin in 1953 and the rise of Krushchev in 1958, relations between the Soviet Union and China deteriorated further, resulting in the Sino-Soviet split in 1960. Henceforth, China would pursue the development of nuclear weapons and space technologies/vehicles independently.

Major achievements, milestones

Between its inception in the late 1950s and the turn of the century, the Chinese space program experienced a gradual buildup in terms of technology, infrastructure, and capability. In time, this would set the stage for China to become an official major power in space.

By 1958, the country had achieved two major milestones that put them firmly on the road to sending rockets into space. The first took place in April of that year when China broke ground on its first launch site near the city of Jiuquan in Inner Mongolia.

Known as the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center (or Launch Complex B2), this site would later expand to becoming the Dongfeng Aerospace City, and was the first of several launch sites built in China.

Also by 1958, China had succeeded in building the Dongfeng-1 (DF-1) launch vehicle, which was a Chinese version of the Soviet R-2 rocket (itself a Soviet version of the German V-2). This was made possible by the technology transfer program that existed between the two states in the 1950s, which allowed Chinese scientists to reverse-engineer the Soviet design.

Despite some setbacks caused by the Sino-Soviet split,  the Chinese succeeded in developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear warheads by the 1960s. They also managed to successfully launch their first sounding rocket (the T-7, a Chinese version of the Soviet R-7) on February 19th, 1960.

Later that year, they also conducted the first successful launch of the DF-1. This was followed by the introduction of the DF-2 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), which was tested in 1962, but failed. In 1964, China successfully tested the redesigned version, the DF-2A.

That same year, China took its first official step into space. This happened on July 19th, 1964, when China launched its first living creatures, eight white mice, into space and successfully recovered them from the Guangde Rocket Launch Site (Base 603) using the redesigned T-7 sounding rocket - the T-7A(S1).

By 1967, Mao ordered that China take all the necessary steps to put an astronaut (taikonaut) into space, largely in response to the success of NASA's Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs and the Soviet Union's Vostok, Voskhod, and Soyuz programs.

Over the next three years, Chinese scientists succeeded in developing the country's first heavy launch vehicles - the two-stage Feng Bao-1 (1969) and the three-stage Chang Zhen-1 (Long March-1) in 1970.

By 1971, China's first crewed space program was adopted (Project 714), with the intent of sending two taikonauts to space by 1973, using the proposed Shuguang spacecraft. By March of 1971, the first 19 taikonauts were chosen, but the program would soon be canceled due to the turmoil arising from the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

The development of the CZ-1 also allowed for the successful launch of China's first communications satellite (Dong Fang Hong-I) in 1970. The second satellite launch took place the following year, which carried a magnetometer and cosmic-ray/x-ray detector to space.

All You Need To Know About the Chinese Space Program
Dong Fang Hong I, Chinese first satellite (1970), shown at the Space technology exhibition in Hohhot, China. Source: Brücke-Osteuropa/Wikipedia Commons

On November 26th, 1975, China's first recoverable satellite - Fanhui Shi Weixing (FSW-0 No.1) was successfully launched and returned to Earth after three days. The purpose of this mission (and subsequent FSW satellites) was to test key systems that would come into play for future crewed missions.

With the death of Mao in 1976, several projects related to China's space program were canceled and progress towards a crewed mission slowed. However, by the late 70s and 80s, China's space program was able to boast several key accomplishments - like the commissioning of the Yuanwang-1 space survey ship in 1979.

By the 1980s, additional progress was made with the development of full-range ICBMs and the deployment of the Long March 2C and Long March 3 rockets. This latter development allowed for the creation of a commercial launch program in 1985, giving China the ability to send satellites into space - primarily for European and Asian interests.

In 1986, China once again set some ambitious long-term goals, such as the development of crewed spacecraft and a space station. In March, the Chinese government adopted Astronautics plan 863-2, which called for the creation of a spaceplane (Project 863-204) to ferry astronaut crews to a space station (Project 863-205).

All You Need To Know About the Chinese Space Program
 The launch of Long March 3B Rocket in 1997. Source: AAxanderr/Wikimedia Commons

After several spaceplane concepts (similar to the Space Shuttle and Buran Shuttle) were rejected, the program leaders opted for a simpler space capsule instead. The project did not materialize at the time (more on this below) but would lay the groundwork for what would be China's first crewed missions to space.

It was also in this period that China developed its current space monitoring and control network. This consists of the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center, the Xi'an Satellite Measurement and Control Center, four Yuanwang-class ocean-going space survey ships, and multiple land monitoring and control stations.

Modern era

In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, China embarked on a new era of reform designed to ensure the long-term survival of the Chinese Communist Party.

Mirroring changes in policy and economic reforms, China's space program ceased using names that reflected the revolutionary history of the People's Republic of China and began using mystical and religious ones drawn from Chinese mythology and ancient history.

In 1993, China's space program was reformed with the creation of the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the China Science and Industry Aerospace Corporation (CASIC). While the former was responsible for planning and developing space activities, the latter was responsible for developing space-related technologies.

Under the CNSA's guidance, several important milestones followed. In 1999, the CNSA conducted the first launch of the Shenzhou spacecraft, a modified version of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that was created to support China's crewed space program.

In 2003, the first crewed mission to Earth orbit was successfully launched (Shenzhou 5). This mission involved sending a single taikonaut (Commander Yang Liwei) to orbit on October 13th. After orbiting Earth for 21 hours, Yang's capsule returned to Earth on the 15th.

That same year, the CNSA inaugurated its Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (the Chang'e program, named after the Chinese Moon goddess), which envisioned sending a series of robotic missions to the Moon in preparation for an eventual crewed mission.

Intrinsic to this program was the development of heavy-launch vehicles like the Long March 3B and 3C. It was these rockets that sent the first three missions in the Chinese lunar program to the Moon, with the Chang'e 1 mission launching in 2007, Chang'e 2 in 2010, and Chang'e 3 in 2013.

As part of Phase I of the program, the Chang'e 1 and Chang'e 2 missions consisted of lunar orbiters that were tasked with gathering data on the Moon's surface. After mapping the surface in greater detail, the second mission headed for the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrangian Point in order to test China's telemetry, tracking, and command (TT&C) network.

This was followed by Phase II, which consisted of sending both a lander and a rover to explore the surface. After reaching the lunar surface on December 14th, 2013, the Chang'e 3 lander deployed the Yutu (Jade Rabbit) rover to explore the northern region of Mare Imbrium.

In 2018, the Chang'e 4 lander was sent to the far side of the Moon, where it deployed the Yutu 2 rover to explore the South Pole-Aitken Basin. The lander also carried the Lunar Micro Ecosystem (LME) experiment, a metal cylinder containing seeds and insect eggs designed to test the effects of lunar gravity on living creatures.

The experiment achieved some initial success when some of the cottonseeds sprouted inside the cylinder. Unfortunately, the cylinder was not equipped with a heating system and nighttime temperatures plummeted to -62 °F (-52 °C) shortly thereafter, causing the plants to freeze.


The orbiter component of the mission also tested the ability to relay communications from the far side of the Moon. This concluded Phase II of the program, which will be followed by sample-return missions and an eventual crewed mission to the Moon.

The Chang'e 5-T1 mission, an experimental unmanned lunar mission designed to test atmospheric re-entry capabilities, was launched on October 23rd, 2014. Based on the data acquired from that mission, the Chang'e-5 sample return mission is expected to launch by the end of 2020.

In 2016, China conducted the first launch of its Long March 5 rocket, a two-stage heavy launch vehicle that will play a vital role in China's future plans in space. China has also made significant strides in the development of space stations in recent years.

In 2011, the Tiangong-1 station was launched as part of the program of the same name - which means "Celestial Palace" in Chinese. This prototype was designed to test technology and components that would eventually go into the construction of a large space station. 

In 2016, the station's successor (Tiangong-2) was launched into orbit. Building on the successes of the first, this station was designed to test systems and processes for mid-term space stays and refueling. The lessons learned from this station will also go into the construction of the third and final installment in this program - Tiangong-3.


In April of 2018, following months of speculation and rumors about a loss of control, Tiangong-1 deorbited over the Pacific Ocean and burned up in Earth's atmosphere. In July of 2019, Tiangong-2 also deorbited and burned up precisely as expected.

In 2017, Chinese officials announced their plan for the development of a reusable spaceplane similar to the US Air Force X-37B, which they claimed would launch by 2020. On September 4th, 2020, the mysterious space plane was launched on a Long March 2F rocket and returned to Earth after spending two days in orbit.

In 2016, Chinese authorities approved of the first independent mission sent by their country to Mars. By April of 2020, China announced that the Mars spacecraft would be named Tianwen-1 ("Quest for Heavenly Truth").

In July of 2020, Tianwen-1 launched, becoming China's first interplanetary mission to take to space. As of September of 2020, the mission was reportedly in stable condition and still en route to Mars, where it is expected to arrive by February 2021.

Most important missions to date

Since its inception in the late 1950s, and its reformation in the early 90s, China's space program has made some very impressive accomplishments. But, as with other space programs, certain missions stand out as being of particular importance.

For starters, you have the launch of the Dong Fang Hong-I satellite in 1970, which set the record for being the heaviest satellite launched into space. In fact, the mass of this satellite was more than the combined mass of the first satellites orbited by the previous four countries (the Soviet Union, the United States, the UK, and Canada).

The launch of the FSW-0 No.1 recoverable satellite was also a major milestone for the Chinese space program. With this one satellite, China became the third country in the world to demonstrate expertise in satellite return technology. The mission was also tested technology and processes (such as heat shields and atmospheric re-entry) intrinsic to the development of a crewed spacecraft.

The commissioning of the Yuanwang-1 tracking ship also made China the fourth country in the world to have an ocean-going space survey ship capable of tracking ballistic missiles, satellites, and spacecraft. With the launch of Shenzhou-5 in 2003, China became the third country (after the US and the former Soviet Union) to successfully send a person into space.

This was followed by the Shenzhou 6 and Shenzhou 7 missions, which succeeded in sending teams of two and three to space in 2005 and 2008. The Shenzhou 8 mission, which was uncrewed, saw the spacecraft rendezvous and dock with the Tiangong-1 space station. 

Beginning in 2011, China began constructing the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) array, which finished construction in 2016. Measuring 1,600 ft (500 m) in diameter, FAST is the largest single dish, filled-aperture radio telescope, replacing the Arecibo Observatory 1,000 ft 8 in (305 m)

Also known as Tianyan ("Sky Eye" or "The Eye of Heaven" in Chinese), this project is funded by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and managed by the National Astronomical Observatories of Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC).

The telescope made its first discovery of two new pulsars in August 2017, detecting two new pulsars (PSR J1859-01 and PSR J1931-02) located 16,000 and 4,100 light-years away, respectively. As of September 2018, the telescope has discovered a total of 44 new pulsars.

In 2016, the Shenzhou 11 mission was mounted, during which China's first crewed docking took place. This consisted of a three-person crew that rendezvoused and transferred aboard the Tiangong-2 space station and spent a total of 30 days there.

The Chang'e program has also been a very significant step for China, with multiple missions accomplishing historic feats. With the launch of the Chang'e 1 orbiter in 2007, China became the fifth nation to successfully orbit the Moon and map its surface.

The Chang'e 2 spacecraft was also the first to travel to the L2 Lagrange point directly from a lunar orbit, or from a Sun-Earth Lagrange point to an asteroid (which took place in 2011 and 2012, respectively). 

The Chang'e 4 mission is the most significant, however, being the first mission in history to achieve a soft landing on the far side of the Moon. Its exploration of the South Pole-Aitken Basin is also very important because of how many space agencies plan to build crewed outposts there in the coming decade.

The Lunar Micro Ecosystem (LME) is also the first experiment to test the effects of lunar gravity on living creatures. While the experiment experienced a setback after a cotton seed sprouted and then died shortly thereafter, the information gathered here is expected to inform future crewed missions and the creation of a permanent outpost on the surface.

The year 2020 saw two major developments in the Chinese space program. In July of 2020, China's first interplanetary mission (Tianwen-1) launched for Mars. In September, China's first reusable space plane launched and spent two days in space.

Combined with the creation of a crewed space program, a new family of heavy-launch systems, its lunar exploration program, and its successful deployment of two space stations, these latest accomplishments demonstrate just how much China's space program has matured in recent decades.

The future

Today, China is considered to be the third-largest power in space (behind Russia and the United States). And in the coming years, the CNSA has many ambitious plans in place that they hope will catapult them to the leading space superpower.

For starters, China is currently gearing up to complete Phase III of the Chang'e program, which will end with the Chang'e 5 conducting the country's first sample-return mission from the Moon. The fourth phase (planned for 2023-2027), will consist of more research conducting in the South-Pole Aitken Basin and the construction of a research outpost.

For this phase, China will send three landers, orbiter, and rover missions to investigate the Basin's topography, resources, and obtain samples for analysis. This phase will also include a 3D-printing experiment that will use lunar regolith to build a structure and another sealed ecosystem experiment.

In addition, the CNSA intends to apply the lessons learned from their first two stations to the creation of a large, modular space station (beginning in 2022). This station will be the third modular space station to be built in Earth orbit, after Mir (1986-2001) and the International Space Station (1998-present).

The Tiangong-3 space station will consist of three modules - the Core Cabin Module (CCM), the Laboratory Cabin Module I (LCM-1), and the Laboratory Cabin Module II (LCM-2) – and be supplied by the Shenzhou and the Tianzhou spacecraft.

As of 2019, China began reviewing preliminary studies for a crewed lunar landing mission (to take place in the 2030s) and cooperating with international partners to build an outpost near the lunar south pole (like the proposed International Moon Village).



Like most national space programs, China's success has been the result of the nuclear arms race and the competition to get to space that characterized the post-World War II era. After following the United States and the Soviet Union's lead for a few decades, China began setting its own goals with the intent of becoming a major space power.

With the "economic miracle" that took place since the turn of the century, China's space program and its presence in space have grown considerably. By the 2020s and 2030s, China hopes to conduct crewed exploration missions to the Moon and robotic missions to Mars.

This could be followed in the 2040s to the 2060s with crewed missions to Mars. Only time will tell. But at this juncture, one thing remains clear. Much like their predecessors, China's current generation of space explorers refuses to be left behind!