Space Commerce

Chinese Launch Provider Space Pioneer Announces New Funding, Rockets

By Blaine Curcio
July 19, 2023
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Chinese Launch Provider Space Pioneer Announces New Funding, Rockets
Maiden Launch of Tianlong-2 in April 2023.
Image credit: CCTV /

Chinese commercial space has had a short history of just nine years, but within that time, there has been enough activity to have created multiple “generations” of Chinese commercial space companies. The first generation were the real pioneers: companies founded between 2014 and 2017ish, at a time when no one in China knew what commercial space meant, or whether it would be allowed to survive beyond the next Five-Year Plan period. These companies have seen mixed success, with some becoming leading firms in their field (CGSTL in remote sensing, Expace in launch, Emposat in TT&C), and some quite literally suffering from failure to launch.

Starting roughly around 2018, we saw the second generation of Chinese commercial space companies start to emerge, oftentimes being founded by executives from the first-generation companies. In the five or so years since, several of these second-generation companies have leaped ahead of their more seasoned counterparts, making remarkably fast progress and rapidly diminishing the utility of the “generation” system altogether. One of the most successful of these second-gen companies is the launch company Space Pioneer, which has made significant waves in recent months thanks to announcements for a major funding round and plans for new rockets, as well as to some interesting comments from their CEO. Let’s dive in.

Origins of Space Pioneer

Space Pioneer, formerly known as Tianbing Aerospace (天兵科技) was founded in January 2019 by Kang Yonglai, the former CTO of first-generation launch company Landspace. Based in Beijing but with a significant presence in nearby Tianjin and the city of Suzhou (near Shanghai), Space Pioneer was founded with a similar roadmap to Landspace: developing medium-lift (and eventually, heavy-lift) liquid-powered rockets. In the 4.5 years since its founding, Space Pioneer has made some major strides in technology, fundraising, and industrial base development.

This has included building a significant industrial base in Zhangjiagang, a part of Suzhou City in the highly-developed Jiangsu Province. The industrial base, located near the mouth of the Yangtze River in eastern China, gives Space Pioneer easy access to the sea, should it want to send their rockets by barge to one of the several coastal launch sites being built by China today.

In the meantime, Space Pioneer has been cultivating relationships with those very coastal launch sites. Notably, in March of this year, we saw reports that representatives from the company met with teams from the Wenchang Commercial Launch Center in Hainan, discussing among other things Space Pioneer’s desire to launch from either the under-construction Launchpad Number 2 at Wenchang, or to build its own within or near the center. Moving forward, Space Pioneer’s ability to establish a credible launch track record, will likely grant the company better access to these sites. And for Space Pioneer, that’s a good thing, because it nailed its first launch earlier this year. 

Space Pioneer CEO Kang Yonglai Discussing Constellations as a source of launch demand in June 2023. Image credit:

A massively successful first launch

Space Pioneer made its biggest splash on April 2, 2023, when the company successfully debuted its Tianlong-2 rocket in a launch from Jiuquan, carrying two satellites for commercial satellite manufacturer Hangsheng Satellite. This was the first time that a commercial Chinese company had successfully launched a liquid-fueled rocket, and, notably, the rocket was an amalgamation of components made by various companies in China’s space industrial base. The first stage of the Tianlong-2 was powered by 3x YF-102 engines, purchased from AALPT (AKA the 6th Academy of CASC), and the thrust vectoring mechanisms were provided by CASIC’s 3rd Academy.

The April launch included a few other noteworthy details that make Space Pioneer stand out in a very crowded Chinese commercial launch sector. The rocket’s 3rd stage became the first upper stage that actively deorbited in a controlled manner when it reignited for a second time, triggering a re-entry over Antarctica. The rocket was also the first to use coal-based kerosene (rather than petrol-based kerosene), which appears to be marginally cheaper.

Finally, the April 2023 launch saw statements from Space Pioneer about ambitions to launch the Tianlong-2 rocket from sea launch platforms, though this is unlikely to occur until further off into the future because the Tianlong-2 is likely incompatible with existing sea launch platforms. In any case, the April 2023 launch of the Tianlong-2, coming just about 4 years after the company’s founding, clearly created significant momentum for Space Pioneer moving forward — as evidenced by significant recent financial growth.

Raising money and making plans for the future

And with a massive war chest, Space Pioneer may just be getting started. Thus far, the company has been a prodigious fundraiser. Most recently, Space Pioneer completed a round of funding for hundreds of millions of Yuan earlier this month, at which time the company claimed to have raised a total of ¥3 billion (US $416 million) across 10 funding rounds since founding (for what it’s worth, in our Orbital Gateway Consulting database of Chinese space industry funding, we put the figure at ¥2.5 billion). At its most recent funding round, various news sources classified Space Pioneer as a “unicorn,” implying a valuation of greater than $1 billion. In any case, this valuation puts the company in the same league as some of the leading commercial launch companies in the world, albeit still several orders of magnitude below SpaceX’s market value.

This most recent round of funding will, according to Space Pioneer, be used to develop the Tianlong-3 heavy-lift launch vehicle, as well as large-scale rocket engine production capabilities, and batch manufacturing. In a June 2023 presentation, CEO Kang Yonglai noted that Space Pioneer is planning a maiden launch of the Tianlong-3 as early as May 2024, which, with a planned payload mass to LEO of some ~17 tons, would represent a massive step-change in China’s commercial launch capabilities. A successful launch of the new rocket would also cement Space Pioneer’s position among the leading commercial launch companies worldwide.

The Tianlong-3 Rocket. Soon to be sending 17t to LEO from a spaceport near you? Image credit: Space Pioneer.

What lessons can we apply to Chinese commercial space?

The case of Space Pioneer is an interesting one. Despite having been founded some 3.5 years after companies like Landspace and iSpace, Space Pioneer has arguably seen more success thus far (Landspace only just reached orbit successfully for the first time on July 12 with its Zhuque-2 rocket). The company has leveraged several sources of assistance from the Chinese system, having received significant financial and industrial support from city governments (Zhangjiagang, Tianjin), technology transfer (engines from AALPT and CASIC), and policy support.

All this is to say, the Chinese space sector is so fast-moving that even very young companies can achieve a measure of success, sometimes before their more well-established counterparts. Moving forward, this may change to some extent, as commercialization spreads, revenues grow, and launch cadences increase. As we move towards such a dynamic, there will likely emerge a handful of winners from the pack of some 20-odd Chinese commercial launch companies, and it will become more difficult for upstarts to rapidly catch up. But until then, there seems ample room for more newcomers to the sector, even if those newcomers are not necessarily pioneers. 

Blaine Curcio

Blaine Curcio is the leading Chinese space industry analyst, having been based in Greater China since 2011, and having been working in the space and satcom sector since 2010. He is founder of Hong Kong-based Orbital Gateway Consulting, a research and consulting firm focused on the Chinese space sector, and is Affiliate Senior Consultant at Euroconsult, a leading space industry consulting firm.