Chinas Space Program: An Overview
CRS Report for Congress
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 successfully completed its second human
spaceflight mission on October 17, 2005. China is only the third country, after Russia
and the United States, able to launch people into space. Its first human spaceflight was
in 2003 when a single astronaut, or “taikonaut,” made a flight lasting slightly less than
a day. The 2005 flight lasted five days, and involved two taikonauts. As the United
States embarks upon President Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration” to return
astronauts to the Moon by 2020 and someday send them to Mars, some may view
China’s entrance into the human exploration of space as a competitive threat, while
others may view China as a potential partner. This is the final edition of this report.
China has been launching satellites since 1970. Most of the launches are of Chinese
communications, weather, remote sensing, navigation, or scientific satellites. Some of
those satellites may be for military applications, or are dual use. Some were commercial
launches for foreign countries or companies, primarily placing communications satellites1
into orbit. China launched its first astronaut, or “taikonaut,” in October 2003.
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, which 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
1 The term “taikonaut” for Chinese astronaut was popularized by an independent Chinese space
analyst, Chen Lan, who operates the “Go Taikonauts” unofficial Chinese space website
[http://www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/Launchpad/1921/]. According to Mr. Chen, other
Chinese terms for astronaut are “yahangyuan,”“hangtianyuan,” and “taikogren.”
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
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
China’s Human Spaceflight Program
China’s First Taikonaut and the Shenzhou Spacecraft. On October 15,
Yang Liwei — into space aboard the Shenzhou 5 (Divine Vessel) spacecraft. Lt. Col.
Yang landed on October 16, 2003 Beijing time, after a 21 hour 23 minute flight.
China’s program 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 Chinese press reports, the taikonaut corps
consists of 12 trainees and two trainers, all fighter pilots.
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 typically 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. Four orbital test flights of
the Shenzhou spacecraft were conducted without crews between 1999 and 2003, in
preparation for the flight of Shenzhou 5.
Shenzhou 6: Two Taikonauts on a Five-Day Mission. China launched its
second human spaceflight mission on October 12, 2005 GMT (October 11, EDT).
Carrying two taikonauts, Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng, the Shenzhou 6 descent module
successfully returned to Earth on October 17 after about five days (115 hours and 32
minutes). In addition to learning more about human spaceflight in general, the crew
carried out scientific experiments. The Shenzhou 6 orbital module remains in orbit.
Future Plans, Including the Moon. Chinese officials have been 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.2
Following the landing of the Shenzhou 6 crew, a Chinese space official said that a
mission including a spacewalk was planned for 2007, and a mission involving rendezvous
and docking planned for the 2009-2012 time period.
Whether the Chinese are planning to send humans to the Moon has become a topical
subject since President Bush announced plans for the United States to return astronauts
2 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”).
to the Moon (see CRS Report RS21720). From Chinese sources, the answer appears to
be that such a mission may be under discussion, but there is no definitive program or
Most Chinese reports regarding lunar exploration plans discuss robotic, rather than
human, missions. An oft-cited three-step scenario calls for the launch of a robotic
spacecraft to orbit the Moon in 2007, then a robotic mission to land a rover on the Moon
around 2010, and finally a robotic probe to return lunar samples to Earth around 2020.3
The first step of that plan, to build a probe to orbit the Moon, is underway. The launch
of the probe, named Chang’e, is expected in 2007. Chinese space officials quoted in the
Chinese media rarely mention plans to send humans to the Moon. However, reports on
Chinese websites in 2002 and 2005 discussed a three-step plan to do so. The plan begins
with human trips to Earth orbit, including Earth-orbiting space laboratories; then robotic
probes to the Moon; and ultimately a human landing on the Moon.4 No timetable for the
human lunar landing portion was provided in those stories. However, a 2005 report in a
non-Chinese government owned newspaper quoted a “designer with the Chinese Lunar
Orbiting Exploration” program as describing another version of the three-step plan: a
robotic lunar orbiter in 2007; robotic probes to land on the moon and collect samples over
Still, other Chinese space officials assert they cannot be in a “space race” with other
countries, citing factors such as China’s comparatively low per-capita gross domestic
product, the gap between urban and rural areas, the lack of medical insurance for its 800
million farmers, and the lack of a rocket powerful enough to send people to the Moon.6
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
3 For example, see China’s Lunar Probe Program Facing 3 Major Difficulties: Project Chief
Commander. Xinhua, September 9, 2005 (via Factiva).
4 (1) 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).
(2) Yang Haiying and Shen Yanbin. PRC: Article Examines Preparations for Shenzhou VI, Plans
for Moon Flight. Shanghai Xinwen Chenbao, September 28, 2005 (via FBIS).
5 Kristine Kwok. Shooting for the Moon and Beyond. Hong Kong South China Morning Post
(Internet Version-WWW) in English, October 7, 2005 (via FBIS, which describes the source as
Hong Kong’s most prominent non-PRC-owned English-language daily newspaper).
6 For example, see Xinhua ‘News Analysis’: More on China Has No Intention of Vying With
Others in Space. Beijing Xinhua in English, October 17, 2005, 0550 GMT (via FBIS).
encouraged and supported by the government as an integral part of the state’s7
comprehensive development strategy.
Xinhua, China’s official news service, stated in October 2005 that China spent 19
billion yuan (about $2 billion) on Shenzhou 1-5, and 900 million yuan (about $1108
million) on Shenzhou 6 (currency conversions are from the Xinhua text). 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 over-employment.”9
Commercial Space Launch Activities
China announced its intention to enter the commercial space launch business in
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
7 White Paper: “Full Text” of ‘China’s Space Activities.’ Beijing Xinhua in English, November
8 Xinhua ‘News Analysis, op. cit.
9 Joan Johnson-Freese. September 29, 2003 presentation to Center for Strategic and International
Studies [http://www.csis.org/china/030929johnson-freese.pdf]. Dr. Freese authored The Chinese
Space Program: Mystery Within a Maze, Malaber, Florida, Kreiger Publishing Co., 1998.
responsibility to the State Department as of March 15, 1999. The State Department has
not granted any export licenses for U.S.-built communications satellites, or satellites
containing U.S. components, to China since then. Most commercial communications
satellites are U.S.-built or contain U.S. components, so Chinese commercial space launch
operations have been suspended. However, in January 2006, China announced that it
would launch a French-built communications satellite. Presumably it does not contain
U.S. components and thus does not need to comply with U.S. export controls.
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. 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 website is [http://www.spacechina.com].
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) publishes an annual report on “Military
Power of the People’s Republic of China.” The current edition (2005), available at
[http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Jul2005/d20050719china.pdf], discusses China’s
efforts to develop new space and “counterspace” systems (pp. 35-36). The DOD report
lists a number of activities that are ongoing, or in which China appears interested, that
DOD asserts have potential military applications: the human spaceflight program; remote
sensing satellites; electronic intelligence satellites; and an assortment of what DOD
describes as small satellites (not further defined), microsatellites (weighing less than 100
kilograms), and minisatellites (weighing between 101- and 500 kilograms). The missions
for those various classes of small satellites include remote sensing, communications, and
navigation. The DOD report states that in the next decade, China “most likely will field
radar, ocean surveillance, and improved film-based photoreconnaissance satellites. China
will eventually deploy advanced imagery, reconnaissance, and Earth resource systems
with military applications.” Finally, the report states that China “is working on, and plans
to field, [antisatellite] systems,” including conducting research to develop ground-based
laser antisatellite weapons.
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.
As for cooperation with the United States, there is no government-to-government
level cooperation. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has
reported in the past, however, that it has engaged in low level scientific cooperation, data
exchanges, and participation in multilateral coordination groups with China. China has
expressed interest in participating in the U.S.-led International Space Station (ISS)
program. The United States has declined to bring China into the program.
Following the Shenzhou 5 flight, President Bush congratulated Chinese President
Hu [http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/10/20031019-5.html] and wished
China continued success. Then-NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe called Shenzhou 5
an “important achievement in human exploration.”10 His successor, Dr. Michael Griffin,
congratulated China on Shenzhou 6 [http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2005/oct/
President Bush announced a new Vision for Space Exploration for NASA in January
2004, directing the agency to focus its activities on returning humans to the Moon and
someday sending them to Mars. He invited other countries to join. In November 2004,
NASA sponsored an “international exploration workshop” for other countries interested
in the Vision, and Chinese space officials participated. The head of the Chinese space
agency, Laiyan Sun, made a courtesy call on Mr. O’Keefe. Those actions sparked
discussion of whether China might be included in implementing the Vision. In January
O’Keefe as supporting cooperation with China.11 Representative Mark Kirk visited
China in January 2006 and was quoted by the Associated Press (January 11, 2006, 19:09)
as saying that President Bush wants space cooperation to be discussed at a planned April
Representative Ken Calvert, chairman of the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee
of the House Science Committee, was quoted by AW&ST in October 2005 as expressing
concern that China might send humans to the Moon before NASA returns astronauts
there. “Even if we follow the president’s vision and we’re back to the Moon by 2020, I
also serve on the Armed Service [sic] Committee, so I have the ability to look at a lot of
things. ... And looking at things that are not classified, more than likely the Chinese will
be on the Moon before that. I would rather be on the Moon to greet the Chinese rather
than going to the Moon and have the Chinese greet us.”12 He reportedly added that “Any
cooperation with the Chinese at this point I suspect would be more one-way than it would
be two-way. Plus the fact that we need to be cautious about how we go about doing
[cooperation] and what our policy should be. So I would be careful.” The AW&ST
article cautioned, however, that Representative Calvert’s assessment that China might
land astronauts on the Moon before the United States returns there had a “risk it could
backfire over the long term if it becomes clear he was bluffing.” Citing an unnamed
congressional source, the AW&ST article stated “it would be hard to make an argument
that the U.S. is in a race to the Moon when China has only one human orbital flight under
its belt and is preparing to send two men on a five-day mission ... reminiscent of ... Soviet
... flights in the 1960s.”
10 NASA press release 03-333, October 14, 2003.
11 Craig Covault. The China Card. Aviation Week & Space Technology, January 31, 2005, p.
12 Frank Morring, Jr. Space Race Redux. Aviation Week & Space Technology, October 3, 2005,