Status Report

CRS Report: China’s Space Program: An Overview

By SpaceRef Editor
November 14, 2003
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CRS Report: China’s Space Program: An Overview

Congressional CRS Report for Congress

Received through the CRS Web

Order Code RS21641

Updated October 21, 2003

China’s Space Program: An Overview

Marcia S. Smith

Specialist in Aerospace and Telecommunications Policy Resources, Science, and Industry Division


The People’s Republic of China launched its first astronaut, or “taikonaut,” Lt. Col.
Yang Liwei, on October 15, 2003 Beijing time (October 16 Eastern Daylight Time).
China thus became only the third country, after Russia and the United States, able to
launch humans into orbit. Lt. Col. Yang landed on October 16 Beijing time (October
15 EDT) after making 14 orbits (21 hours and 23 minutes). The launch is raising
congressional interest in the nature and scope of the Chinese space program. The
implications of China’s entry into the field of human space flight is unclear. Some may
welcome a new entrant in the human exploration of space, some may view it as an
indicator of Chinese technological advancements that could pose a threat, and others
may find the event unremarkable, coming as it does 42 years after the Soviet Union and
United States accomplished the same feat. This report will not be updated.


China launched its first satellite in 1970. By October 16, 2003, it had conducted 79
launches. Of those, 67 were successes, 8 were complete failures, and 4 were partial
failures placing satellites into incorrect orbits. Most of the launches were of Chinese
communications, weather, remote sensing, navigation, or scientific satellites. Some of
those satellites may be for military applications, or are dual use. Four test spacecraft
related to China’s human spaceflight program were launched, followed by the first
Chinese “taikonaut” (see below). Some launches were conducted on a commercial basis
for foreign countries or companies, primarily placing communications satellites into orbit.
China has three space launch sites: Jiuquan (also called Shuang Cheng-tzu) in the
Gobi desert; Xichang, in southeastern China (near Chengdu); and Taiyuan, south of
Beijing. Jiuquan was China’s first launch site, and is used for launches of a variety of
spacecraft, including those related to the human spaceflight program. Xichang,
inaugurated in 1984, is used for launches into geostationary orbit (above the equator),
primarily communications satellites. Taiyuan, opened in 1988, is used for launches into
polar orbits (that circle the Earth’s poles), primarily weather and other Earth observation
satellites. China has several different launch vehicles; most are called Chang Zheng (CZ,
meaning Long March). Versions of the CZ 2 are used at Jiuquan; the CZ 2F is used for
launches associated with its human spaceflight program. Versions of the CZ 3 and some
CZ 2 variants are used at Xichang. CZ 4 is used at Taiyuan. China is developing a new
family of launch vehicles, called Kaituozhe (KT, meaning Pioneer). A test launch of the
first of these, KT-1, for small satellites, was conducted at Taiyuan in September 2003.

In a 1991 article, Dr. Yanping Chen reviewed the evolution of the Chinese space
program, dividing it into four periods: 1956-1966, when the space program was first
established despite a number of “traumatic political events” including the Great Leap
Forward and the withdrawal of Soviet support for Chinese science and technology; 1966-
1976, during which the space program was able to maintain its course even though
“virtually all sectors of Chinese society were torn apart” by the Cultural Revolution;
1976-1986, a period when the space program was put on the back burner, but survived,
while the country recovered from the Cultural Revolution; and 1986 forward, which Dr.
Chen describes as the “heyday” of the program as the government made space a
“cornerstone of the national science and technology development effort.”1

China’s Human Spaceflight Program

China’s First “Taikonaut”2. On October 15, 2003, at 09:00 Beijing time (01:00
GMT, or October 14, 2003, 21:00 Eastern Daylight Time), China launched its first
taikonaut-People’s Liberation Army Lt. Col. Yang Liwei-into space aboard the
Shenzhou 5 (Divine Vessel) spacecraft. Lt. Col. Yang landed on October 16, 2003 at
06:23 Beijing time (October 15, 18:23 EDT), after 14 orbits (21 hours 23 minutes).
China’s current effort to launch humans into space started in 1992 and is designated
by the Chinese as “Project 921” (an earlier effort was discontinued due to economic
pressures). Two Chinese specialists trained at Russia’s cosmonaut training facility in Star
City (near Moscow) in 1997. According to several Chinese press reports, the current
taikonaut corps consists of 12 trainees and two trainers, all fighter pilots.
Shenzhou Design. The Shenzhou spacecraft design is patterned after Russia’s
Soyuz spacecraft, although the Chinese insist that the spacecraft are made entirely in
China. Shenzhou consists of three modules: the descent module, a service module, and
an orbital module. At the end of the primary mission, the descent module and service
module detach from the orbital module. The service module positions the descent module
correctly for reentry and fires its engines to initiate descent. It detaches from the descent
module and disintegrates in the atmosphere as the descent module returns to Earth. The
orbital module remains in orbit for several months. It has its own propulsion system,
allowing it to make maneuvers. On some of the test flights, experiments were carried on
the orbital module in addition to those in the descent module.

Test Flights. Four orbital test flights of the Shenzhou spacecraft were conducted
without crews. As described above, each spacecraft consists of three modules, one of
which-the descent module-is designed to return to Earth. The descent modules are not
reusable. Shenzhou 1 was launched on November 20, 1999 and the descent module
remained in orbit for 21 hours. According to Chinese accounts, this version of the
spacecraft did not include many of the systems (such as life support) needed for an actual
human space flight. The flight was not announced by the Chinese government until after
its successful landing, an event accompanied by significant Chinese press coverage.
Shenzhou 2 was launched on January 10, 2001, and, according to a Chinese press report,
carried unspecified animals.3 Unlike Shenzhou 1, no photographs were released of the
capsule once it returned to Earth after 7 days in orbit, leading many in the West to
conclude that the landing was unsuccessful. Shenzhou 3 (launched March 25, 2002) and
Shenzhou 4 (launched December 30, 2002) each carried “dummy” astronauts and their
descent modules returned after 7 days. The orbital module for Shenzhou 1 reentered after
a week; the others remained in orbit for 7-8 months.4 The Shenzhou 5 descent module,
carrying Lt. Col. Yang, returned after 21 hours; the orbital module is still in orbit.

Future Plans. Chinese sources said the next human spaceflight would occur in
1-2 years. Chinese officials often are quoted discussing a three-step human spaceflight
plan: send humans into Earth orbit, dock spacecraft together to form a small laboratory,
and ultimately build a large space station.5 A Chinese journal mentioned a three step plan
to send humans to the Moon, beginning with Earth-orbiting space laboratories, followed
by robotic probes, and ultimately a human landing on the Moon.6 Conflicting estimates
of when (between 3-20 years) the first robotic probe might be launched have been made.
China has expressed interest in participating in the International Space Station (ISS)
program (see CRS Issue Brief IB93017 for more on ISS). The United States has declined
to bring China into the program, although one experiment-the Alpha Magnetic
Spectrometer-that includes Chinese hardware is scheduled to be placed aboard the space
station (it flew on the space shuttle in 1998), although the launch date is uncertain.

Guiding Principles and Funding

The Chinese government published a “White Paper” in November 2000 outlining
its goals and guiding principles for the space program. The first principle is –

– Adhering to the principle of long-term, stable and sustainable development and
making the development of space activities cater to and serve the state’s
comprehensive development strategy. The Chinese government attaches great
importance to the significant role of space activities in implementing the strategy of
revitalizing the country with science and education and that of sustainable
development, as well as in economic construction, national security, science and
technology development and social progress. The development of space activities is
encouraged and supported by the government as an integral part of the state’s
comprehensive development strategy.7

Xie Mingbao, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, was quoted
by Xinhua, China’s official news service, as saying that China spent “18 billion yuan
(about 2.2 billion US dollars) on the five spacecraft of the Shenzhou series that have been
launched so far.”8 Annual spending on the total Chinese space program is difficult to
ascertain. Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of the Department of National Security
Studies at the Naval War College, estimates that China spends $1.4 billion-$2.2 billion
annually on space, but cautions against direct comparisons with U.S. space spending
because of currency conversion issues, China’s command economy, and “deliberate overemployment.”9

Commercial Space Launch Activities

China announced its intention to enter the commercial space launch business in
1986. (Commercial space launch competition is discussed in CRS Issue Brief IB93062.)
Chinese launch services are marketed through China Great Wall Industries Corporation
(CGWIC). Virtually all communications satellites requiring commercial launch services
are built in the United States or include U.S. components, so U.S. export licenses must
be granted to send the satellites to China for launch. The United States thus has played a
key role in the evolution of the Chinese commercial launch services business. In 1988,
the Reagan Administration approved the first export licenses for three satellites to be sent
to China on the condition that China sign three international treaties concerning, among
other things, liability for damage from space launches; negotiate a fair trade agreement
with the United States regarding launch services; and reach agreement on protecting
technology from being transferred while satellites are in China. All conditions were met
by January 1989. At that time, commercial communications satellites were on the U.S.
Munitions List and export license requests were handled by the State Department.
Following the Tiananmen Square uprising in June 1989, the Bush Administration
suspended all export licenses for items on the Munitions List, including the three
satellites. The suspension was ultimately lifted, and the satellites were launched by China.

The incident underscored the coupling of commercial communications satellites
export licenses and overall relationships between the United States and China. The 1990s
witnessed repeated instances where export licenses would be granted, suspended, and
reinstated, depending on the political situation. In 1997, allegations surfaced that China
was obtaining militarily useful information by launching U.S. satellites. The charges
concerned investigations into launch failures involving U.S.-built satellites where two
U.S. companies (Loral and Hughes) allegedly assisted China in understanding the cause
of the accidents and how to remedy them. By that time, responsibility for commercial
communications satellite exports had been shifted from the State Department to the
Commerce Department. In response to the allegations, Congress returned export
responsibility to the State Department as of March 15, 1999. The State Department has
not granted any export licenses for sending communications satellites to China since then,
and Chinese commercial space launch operations consequently have been suspended.
(See CRS Issue Brief IB93062 for more details on the Loral/Hughes controversy and the
financial penalties imposed on the companies in settlements with the U.S. government.)

Military Space Activities

Chinese officials routinely call for using space for peaceful purposes, and argue
against the militarization of space in settings such as the U.N. Conference on
Disarmament. However, the November 2000 White Paper includes national security as
one of the purposes served by the space program, and China’s remote sensing,
communications, and navigation satellites presumably satisfy both military and civilian
objectives. Two Chinese satellites (ZY-2 and ZY-2B) are widely considered in the West
to be for military reconnaissance. The Chinese space program is conducted by the China
Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (abbreviated CASC by the Chinese), a
state-owned enterprise that develops and manufactures strategic and tactical missiles in
addition to spacecraft, launch vehicles, and other aerospace products. CGWIC (see above)
is a part of CASC. CASC’s Web site is [].

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) publishes an annual report on “Military
Power of the People’s Republic of China.” The current edition, available at
[], discusses China’s efforts to
develop new space launch vehicles, “counterspace” systems, and to send humans into
space. DOD asserts that the human spaceflight effort eventually could aid Chinese
military space capabilities. “While one of the strongest immediate motivations for this
program appears to be political prestige, China’s manned space efforts almost certainly
will contribute to improved military space systems in the 2010-2020 timeframe.” (p. 37)
Regarding counterspace systems, the DOD report suggests that China may be developing
a direct-ascent antisatellite (ASAT) weapon, systems to jam U.S. navigation satellite
signals, and ground-based lasers to damage optical sensors on satellites (p. 36).

International Cooperation

China is very interested in international cooperation in space. The 2000 White Paper
discusses it extensively, and China has cooperative arrangements with several countries,
including Russia, Brazil, and Europe (see below). There is no government-to-government
level cooperation between China and the United States, although the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration (NASA) has reported in the past that it has engaged in low level scientific cooperation, data exchanges, and participation in multilateral coordination
groups with China. China inaugurated use of a receiving station for acquiring data from
U.S. Landsat Earth remote sensing satellites in 1986. The U.S. trade magazine Aviation
Week & Space Technology reported in its April 1, 2002 edition (p. 27) that NASA and the
State Department were exploring “whether and how to bring China into close cooperation
with the U.S. in space,” but there has been no public announcement of new cooperative
agreements since then. President Bush congratulated Chinese President Hu in an October
19, 2003 letter [], and
wished China continued success in its human spaceflight program. NASA Administrator
O’Keefe called Shenzhou 5 an “important achievement in human exploration” and wished
China “a continued safe human space flight program.”10

Russia. Russia11 signed a bilateral space cooperation agreement with China in
1994, including cooperation in robotic missions to Mars and human spaceflight. Then-
President Yeltsin signed a “joint understanding” in 1996 that included training two
Chinese specialists at Russia’s cosmonaut training facility. The Chinese reportedly use
Russian spacesuits, and Russia provided technical assistance to China in the development
of the Shenzhou spacecraft. A Russian space agency official was quoted as saying the
design is 100% Russian,12 but Chinese officials insist the spacecraft are built entirely in
China, and some Western experts cite differences in specific features of Shenzhou versus
Soyuz (for example, the Shenzhou orbital module has its own propulsion system, while
the Soyuz orbital module does not).13

Europe. China has cooperated with several individual European countries. For
example, Sweden launched its Freja satellite on a Chinese launch vehicle from Jiuquan in
1992. China also is cooperating with the European Space Agency (ESA). ESA and
China are developing scientific research satellites called Double Star for magnetospheric
studies. The two Chinese-built satellites will carry five ESA sensors. China and the
European Union (EU) signed a cooperative agreement in September 2003 for China to
participate in the EU-ESA Galileo navigation satellite system, which will be similar to the
U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS).14 Russia and Canada also are participating.
Brazil. China and Brazil are jointly developing remote sensing satellites under the
CBERS (China-Brazil Earth Remote Sensing) program. The first satellite was launched
in 1999; the second in October 2003. Two more are planned.


1 Chen, Yanping. China’s Space Policy-a Historical Review. Space Policy, May 1991: 116-

2 The term “taikonaut” for Chinese astronaut was popularized by an independent Chinese space
analyst, Chen Lan, who operates the “Go Taikonauts” unofficial Chinese space Web site
[]. According to Mr. Chen,
other Chinese terms for astronaut are “yahangyuan,””hangtianyuan,” and “taikogren.”

3 Reuters reported that a monkey, a dog, a rabbit, and snails were carried (Snails Blaze Space
Trail for 1st China Astronaut, January 17, 2001, 23:55:35, via Newsedge), but no mention of these
specifics could be found in Chinese sources used for this report. Xinhua, however, did state that
animals were aboard (Beijing Xinhua in English, January 9, 2001, 1845 GMT, via FBIS).

4 For a summary of these four flights, see: Clark, Phillip S. The First Flights of China’s Shen
Zhou Spacecraft. Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Vol. 56, 2003: 160-174. (The
Shenzhou 4 orbital module reentered on September 9, 2003, after that article was published.)

5 Lu Pi. Manned Space Flights: A Foreseeable Goal. Beijing Review (Internet Version-WWW)
in English, May 9, 2002 (via Foreign Broadcast Information Service, hereafter “FBIS”).

6 Wang Qian. China to Land on Moon by 2010. Beijing Zhongguo Wang WWW-Text in
English, October 26, 2002 (via FBIS, which describes the source as an official PRC Internet site).

7 White Paper: “Full Text” of ‘China’s Space Activities.’ Beijing Xinhua in English, November
22, 2000, 0211 GMT (via FBIS).

8 Quoted in: PRC Space Official Says China To Launch Next Shenzhou in 1-2 Years.
Beijing Xinhua in English, October 16, 2003, 0752 GMT (via FBIS).

9 Johnson-Freese, Joan. September 29, 2003 presentation to Center for Strategic and
International Studies. Available at []. Dr.
Freese is the author of The Chinese Space Program: Mystery Within a Maze, Malaber, Florida,
Kreiger Publishing Co., 1998.

10 NASA press release 03-333, October 14, 2003.

11 The Soviet Union was instrumental in assisting China’s space program in the late 1950s, but
political relationships between the two countries deteriorated soon thereafter and Soviet technical
assistance ended in 1960. See Yanping Chen, op. cit., p. 117.

12 Russia: First Chinese Astronaut Trained in Star City, Russia. Moscow Interfax in English,
October 1, 2003, 1155 GMT (via FBIS)

13 See Clark, op. cit., pp. 161, 164.

14 China, EU Sign Cooperative Agreement to Jointly Develop Galileo Project. Beijing, Xinhua
in English, September 19, 2003, 0940 GMT (via FBIS). China’s existing navigation satellite
system, Beidou, uses satellites in geostationary orbit. It is a different technical approach than that
used by GPS and Galileo (and Russia’s GLONASS), and provides only regional, rather than
global, coverage.

SpaceRef staff editor.