Tuesday, 19 June 2012


This week we will likely witness a landmark event in China's re-emergence as a great power: the country's first mannual docking of one spacecraft with another.

That does not sound terribly exciting, but the ability to transport a crew safely to and from an unmanned vessel is crucial to China's plan to create its own permanent space station, which in turn is vital for acquiring the scientific understanding to do more exciting things - like sending probes to the moon, or even a man to Mars.

Here is a BBC News report on Saturday's launch of the Shenzhou-9 in the Gobi Desert:

When complete, the manned docking of the craft with the Tiangong-1 ("Heavenly Vessel") - a model for the building-blocks of a space station - will put China in the exclusive club of three nations capable of carrying out this technically complex procedure - the other two being the USA and Russia. Shenzhou-9 is also carrying China's first female taikonaut, Liu Yang.

Here is an illustrated guide to the docking procedure:

Much of the coverage has acknowledged it as a great achievement, particularly for a country with still-developing per capita wealth. But China's space program is still far behind the rest of the club - it's roughly where the U.S. was in the mid-1960s, with its Gemini program.

The mission is a source of considerable national pride in China. And although some of that has to do with a government publicity campaign, the troubled history of China's space program gives good reasons to suppose that much of the enthusiasm is genuinely felt.


By the fall of 1944, the Nazi war effort was increasingly desperate. Hitler ordered his top scientists to make a new type of terror-weapon that could be launched on a rocket at civilian populations - the result was the explosive V-2 rocket, which caused great fear when it was targeted at London and Antwerp.

The invention was made possible by Germany's large community of amateur rocketeers - the man in charge of the project, a Prussian aristocrat named Wernher von Braun, was a member of the popular Society for Space Travel.

But V-2 was introduced too late to change German fortunes. Sensing the game was up, Von Braun turned himself over to American troops. The V-2 factory was located in East Berlin, which the Allies had agreed would be a Soviet-occupied zone - so Americans rushed to get there first and shipped out 341 trucks' worth of hardware. Under 'Operation Paperclip', the Americans invited many of the German rocket scientists to come back to the U.S. to contribute their skills, and foremost among them was Von Braun.

Among the U.S. rocket researchers who benefited from this injection of talent was a brilliant Chinese-born and American-educated scientist named Qian Xuesen. A former U.S. army officer, Qian had been at the forefront of the wartime effort at the California Institute of Technology to respond to the invention of the V-2.

Qian interviewed Von Braun extensively and was greatly inspired by his research. Around this time, he began making ambitious plans for an intercontinental space plane, and in some respects he was ahead of his time in foreshadowing features of the future U.S. Space Shuttle. He wrote a book called Interplanetary Flight and, later in life, he focussed on studying connections between extra-sensory perception (EST) and the traditional Chinese practices of qigong.

Below is a picture of Qian who was, according to a senior scientist on China's lunar program, "the father of China's space industry."

In 1949 Qian's talents were recognised when he was chosen to be the first director of Caltech's Jet Propulsion Centre. Less than a year later, however, he was thrust under the incriminating glare of America's 'Red Scare', and his future - and that of the Chinese space program - was changed forever.


In 1950 Qian's application for American citizenship was rejected, because the FBI had found American Communist Party documents from the 1930s that featured his name. It was the era of McCarthy, and paranoid anti-communist witch-hunts that ranged across the U.S. government.

One of the more brazen manifestations of McCarthyism was a 1952 film called Red Planet Mars, in which scientists discover that the inhabitants of Mars are all communists, and the utopian example this sets leads to chaos on earth as various lobby groups plot to bring about the Martian way of life. Except that it all turns out to be a plot by Nazis. The obvious solution is to start a revolution in the USSR that will replace the government there with a priestly monarchy.

The Radio Times Film Guide describes it as: "one of the oddest sci-fi movies ever made, and worth sitting through just to feel your jaw drop at various junctures."

When he tried to leave for China, Qian was arrested and detained, then kept under strict surveillance for five years, during which time the U.S. government decided whether to deport him to the PRC. At last, he was returned to his place of birth, a decision that the then Undersecretary of the U.S. Navy described as "the stupidest thing this country ever did."

Shortly after Qian returned to China, the Soviet Union stunned the world by becoming the first country to put a satellite into space. In 1957, the bleep-bleep emitted by Sputnik-1 was heard around the world. In the Cold War context of superpower rivalry, it was a public humiliation for the U.S. - the first heat of the 'space race' was won by communists.

It was also a wake-up call for the PRC leadership, who had bristled with irritation when Khruschev delivered his 'secret speech' in 1956 denouncing Stalin's cult of personality - and, supposedly by implication, those who had looked up to him, like Mao. When Mao visited Moscow soon after the Sputnik triumph, Mao was awed by Soviet technology, and in the early years of the PRC he'd tried to catch up with them by inviting in masses of Soviet technicians and manufacturers. A year later, Mao declared to a meeting of the Eighth Party Congress:

"Whatever happens, we must have Sputniks. [...] If we're going to throw one up there then throw a big one, one that weighs two tons. Of course we start throwing small, but with one that is at least two tons. We won't do ones the size of chicken eggs like America's."

Mao saw Sputnik as proof that the USSR had achieved parity with the U.S., and drew the conclusion that China was thus freed from any need to exercise diplomatic restraint. If the two super-powers had reached a hostile but stable equilibrium, then it didn't matter what China said or did, because neither super-power would dare to intervene for fear of retaliation by the other. China's relative weakness was a geopolitical advantage. Accordingly, Mao began denouncing the Soviets - initially via proxies - for abandoning the cause of global revolution in order to pursue "peaceful coexistence" with the U.S.

One of the first victims of the Sino-Soviet split was China's newborn space program, which was an extension of its ballistic missile program. In Oct. 1956, Qian had helped found the Fifth Academy of the National Defence Ministry, which requisitioned China's first laboratories dedicated to space research (codenamed 'Group 581'). The government announced a Twelve-Year Plan for Chinese Aerospace, and in 1958 China's first missile-testing base was established. But by the time the Chinese Academy of Sciences had made developing satellites its top priority, the Soviets were reconsidering their role in China and the volatile politics of the 'Great Leap Forward' were underway.

Qian Xuesen and Zhou Enlai toast the Fifth Academy
 In the period of the Great Leap Forward, Party and government officials raced to outdo eachother in setting themselves ever greater and more utopian targets to achieve. They did this because they had limited information about what was happening in other parts of the country, which were reported by the central government as having made miraculous achievements. Local officials made exaggerated claims, the centre then demanded even more, and the process repeated itself in a farcical spiral that became a tragedy.

The members of Group 581 were no different from the other branches of government when it came to feeding this tide of excessive optimism, and they promised Mao they would be ready to launch a satellite into space in just 15 months, in time for the tenth anniversary of the founding of the PRC in 1949. Yet they realised this was an impossible task; they had only managed to produce a short-range ballistic missile by reverse-engineering a Russian model (a modified V-2 the Soviets had seized from Von Braun's factory). In 1958 a nervous CAS delegation visited the USSR to ask for help with Project 581. Unsurprisingly, Moscow turned them away, and in 1960 the Soviets withdrew all their advisors from China.


In the aftermath of the Great Leap debacle, Mao was sidelined in the leadership and the CPC "moderates", like Deng Xiaoping, tried to restore a semblance of political stability and realism in decisionmaking.


When China's first satellite failed to materialise on the heels of the American Explorer-1, Deng ordered the CAS to learn how to walk before it tried to run again. They should focus on building sub-orbital sounding rockets to probe the atmosphere first, and turn to satellites only after that had been achieved - and after the economy had recovered (Qian's first research institute only had one telephone). As Mao lamented that China could not even put a potato in space, Yang Guoning, assistant director of the 7th Machinery Bureau recalls:

"The country was broke! Human spaceflight requires frighteningly large sums of money. Zhou Enlai confessed in exasperation that he was taking money from one pocket to put in the other. Even Qian didn't have the nerve to plead with Premier Zhou for money."  

In the long-run, this slow-and-steady approach reaped dividends, and by 1960 China had launched its first indigenously-designed liquid-fuelled rocket, the T-7M. This rapid turnaround in concrete achievement came in spite of the shoestring budget on which the space scientists operated in the first half of the '60s - key engine parts were handmade, and the T-7M was fuelled using a bicycle pump. The launch site lacked even basic communications equipment - the commander could only issue instructions to the team by calling and making gestures.

Zhao Jiuzhang
In 1964 China successfully tested its first medium-range Dongfeng ballistic missile and its first recoverable sounding rocket. Until this time, though subject to the demands and objectives of the People's Liberation Army, the CAS had been formally distinct, researching satellites parallel to the PLA's research into rockets for nuclear missiles. Now, emboldended by the PLA's impressive progress, the satellite and missile programs were effectively merged. A prominent advocate of the merger was a CAS scientist named Zhao Jiuzhang. Pooling the resources of both institutions and research projects would, he argued, "hit two birds with one stone."

Another, and perhaps a more fundamental, motivation lied behind this amalgamation of effort - a sense in the early 1960s that political stability had truly been restored, and that the chaotic and murderous political campaigns of the 1950s had been left behind. In 1963 Premier Zhou Enlai announced the policy of the 'Four Modernisations' - in agriculture, industry, national defence and science - signalling that the government had decided to prioritise practical objectives over ideology.

Zhou Enlai announcing the 'Four Modernisations'
It seemed like a political environment more conducive to free experimentation and risk-taking, without the subjection of scientific reason to the demands of Party power-struggles. Only in such a context did the immediate gains of increased funding outweigh the risks that the science might get imbroiled in political infighting again.

But with the 'Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution', politics brought the early progress of China's space program to a halt once more. The years from 1966-76 were years of shattered hopes. At the same time as America and Russia were sending men (and women) into space, China was in the grip of a political movement that accorded authority on the basis of "redness" over that of "expertise."

At first, it seemed as if the connections between the space program and China's nuclear weapons development would keep the scientists safely quarantined from any political campaigns - it was assumed the government accorded these defence capabilities too high a priority to play politics with them, and initially that assumption was valid. In fact, the space program made important progress in the first phases of the Cultural Revolution. In 1968 overlapping agencies were consolidated into CAST - the Chinese Academy of Space Technology - and Premier Zhou ordered PLA units to guard the space research centres.

Dong Fang Hong-1
 However, the increased funding and security came with political strings. In 1966 Qian was given the go-ahead to construct a working satellite, but only on the condition that it be more advanced than the first Russian and American satellites. As the launch date of 1970 drew closer, the degree of political interference in every aspect of the satellite's design became all-pervasive. It became so full of 'Mao badges' that scientists warned they were jeopardising the entire mission.

Initially conceived of as the first in a series of sophisticated devices, the Dong Fang Hong was eventually stripped down to a crude orbital loudspeaker for propaganda. The government now decided its sole purpose was publicity, which it expressed in a 12-character slogan: "get it up, follow it around, make it seen, make it heard" (unfortunately, it was launched into unclear skies to coincide with a political timetable). In keeping with Mao's original vision, it was the heaviest first satellite placed in orbit, exceeding the combined mass of the other four.

And, once in orbit, all it could actually do was play the first few bars of The East is Red (02:05):

The launch of China's first satellite was nonetheless a crucial achievement. This success, and the Apollo-11 moon landing, galvanised Qian to set a more ambitious goal - to put a man in space by 1973.

In 1968 the Central Military Commission ordered the Chinese Air Force to screen its top pilots. At the start of 1971 the best in the country were summoned to a hotel in the suburbs of Beijing, where they were told they had been chosen for a secret mission: it was China's first manned spaceflight programme (codenamed 'Dawn'). In the city of Xichang, in China's mountainous far west, a secret 'space city' was built to train 88 elite pilots selected for the mission - 'Base 27.'

The fledgling 'Dawn' program, and some details about its rather chaotic organisation, is detailed in the first part of this Discovery documentary (from 02:30):

Marshal Lin Biao

Ultimately, it proved impossible to keep the space program in safe isolation from the factional conflicts raging around it, and the decision to work more closely with the military came back to haunt the space researchers. 

The man at the pinnacle of the PLA was Marshal Lin Biao. Lin was also Mao's anointed successor and he had compiled the 'Little Red Book' of Mao's quotations. But in 1971 Lin was implicated in a plot to assassinate Mao and seize power in a coup, and both he and his family were killed when their plane crashed in Mongolia whilst trying to flee from the authorities.

Wreckage of Lin Biao's plane

In the wake of Lin's death, the CPC carried out a purge of his close associates and colleagues, including those in the PLA, the Air Force, and the aeronautics and space research institutes. One of those deposed for his supposed ties to Lin was Zhao Jiuzhang, who was relegated to obscurity and later committed suicide.

The 'Dawn' program never recovered from the shock. Although many of Qian's generation of scientists were safeguarded from the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution, the same was not true of the next generation - China's Higher Education sector was thrown into chaos. Mao suspended the manned spaceflight program, reasoning that, "We should take care of affairs here on earth first, and deal with extraterrestrial matters a little later." It was formally wound-down by Deng Xiaoping on his return to power in 1978.


The post-Mao leadership inherited a country exhausted by political campaigns. They chose to focus on realistic objectives that would improve living standards - and re-launched Zhou's 'Four Modernisations.' Throwing money at trying to put a man into space did not seem a high priority - not even on grounds of national prestige (Deng famously opined that China should "bide its time").

But developments in the early 1980s convinced Deng that China could not afford to postpone staking its claim in space. The turning-point was President Reagan's 'Star Wars' speech in 1983 - what Gregory Kulacki (co-author of a history of the Chinese space program, A Place For One's Mat) has called China's "Sputnik moment."

For more about the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) that Reagan launched in this speech, here is a clip from the excellent PBS Cold War series:

After the speech, top scientists persuaded Deng that SDI was just the beginning of a comprehensive U.S. plan to dominate space with their advanced technology, and that they were on the brink of re-launching their Apollo program. Deng declared that China must "focus our energies on urgently needed practical satellite applications", particularly 'hit-to-kill' technology needed to accurately shoot down high-altitude objects that might pose a threat.

Recovering a satellite, late 1970s

However, having these ground-based capabilities would not be enough - to secure its strategic interests, China needed a physical presence in space. This was because the international law governing countries' rights to occupy stretches of the earth's orbit - which is, ultimately, a finite space at any given level of satellite technology - allocated these rights on a 'first come, first serve' basis. In other words, if China waited too long to start sending up lots of useful satellites, it might find its options to be more constrained than if it acted sooner.

As described by Gregory Kulacki, the Chinese leadership sensed there was an international race to launch satellites into geosynchronous orbit. Moreover, Deng believed that China's satellite technology had reached a level of development where they could serve purposes beyond security - in a memorable phrase, he said that by broadcasting lectures to televisions across the country, they could create "a classroom of unlimited size."

Ren Xinmin

There was a problem with this plan: in 1979, after experiencing delays developing their own advanced satellites, the Chinese tried to purchase satellites from the Americans - but they couldn't afford to buy a single one.

Once again, though, it was probably in China's best long-term interest that it was forced by necessity to invent its own satellite technology - since there was a pressing need for quantity, besides quality, it made more sense to acquire the know-how to make their own, which they could then do at a lower per-unit cost than buying them from overseas.

In 1984 China achieved its next breakthrough when it launched its first modern communications satellite. As detailed by Joan Johnson-Freese in her book The Chinese Space Program, the project proceeded through trial-and-error, overseen by a space scientist named Ren Xinmin, who became the project's chief firefighter. At the 11th hour, when it became clear that key parts of the satellite were not ready to be launched, the press re-labelled it an "experimental" launch so that it could be reported as a complete success.

A Long March rocket launch

The satellite program would play a key part in resuscitating the manned spaceflight projects, as the two fields of technology were complementary. There was a vigorous debate within the CPC leadership at the time about whether China ought to be diverting resources into space when there was so much to be done on earth. The final verdict was that to not respond to SDI would be to take too great a risk; as Premier Li Peng reportedly told Ren, "It can't be said that going ahead with the human spaceflight program is a wise decision, but it is a decision that must be taken."

Until they were in a position to seriously pursue manned spaceflight, the government's focus was on lucrative commercial opportunities. After the Challenger disaster in 1986, NASA had temporarily ceased its space launches. As a result, there was a global shortage of launch sites relative to demand. In the late-1980s, China opened up its launch sites to foreign governments and companies to launch their satellites on Chinese rockets, and designed expendable rockets for this purpose - the 'Long March' series.Within ten years, China controlled a 10% share of world launch services.

But to the U.S. government, this was a murky enterprise from the start. Due to the close ties between the Chinese scientific establishment and the PLA, the U.S. government worried that co-operation between space scientists in both countries, even if only as part of a commercial exchange, would result in a loss of military secrets through "dual-purpose" technology; for this reason, they rejected China's bid to participate in the 16-nation International Space Station (ISS).

In the mid-1990s, a series of tragic launch failures seemed to prove them right.

The Chinese set up a team to investigate what had caused the 1996 LM-2 disaster, but the international insurance industry - which had to compensate foreign investors for China's launch failures - insisted that an independent external panel review China's own investigation. The review panel was chaired by a representative of Loral, one of the companies that had a lost a satellite.

This all took place in the aftermath of the 1989 killings in Tiananmen Square, when diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the PRC had cooled (in his 1992 campaign for the Presidency, Bill Clinton had lambasted George Bush Snr. for being soft on the "butchers of Beijing"). Although the Cold War was finished, American fears of China were not, and in 1998 a Congressional Committee was set up to investigate the rocket failures.

It published its findings in the Cox Report. It alleged that American corporations had violated U.S. controls on technology transfer by assisting the Chinese investigation in identifying flaws in their rocket design. Although the Committee conceded that this specific knowledge did not have immediate military applications, it claimed the vague export regulations had been violated in a more roundabout way - by showing the Chinese how to conduct a proper, rigorous investigation, the corporations had helped them to speed-up their space program - and, perhaps, their missiles.


In the same year that the Cox Report was published, China successfully launched its first (empty) manned space vehicle - three decades after Qian had proposed his first design for such a craft. A series of breakthroughs followed: a manned spaceflight in 2003; a lunar orbiter in 2007; a space walk in 2008; and an unmanned space docking in 2011. Qian lived long enough to witness China's first space walk.

In recent years, the Chinese space program has made slow but steady progress. Although still excluded from the ISS, China has co-operated with Russia on plans to send probes to Mars, and with French scientists on satellites to study the sun's surface. Xinhua reported that China plans to make more than 20 manned space voyages in the next decade. Mike Griffin, a NASA administrator, has said that, "The Chinese have a carefully thought-out human space-flight program that will take them up to parity with the U.S. and Russia. They're investing to make China a strategic world power."

According to The Economist, China's political and economic model has turned into a competitive advantage, allowing it to plan for longer-term goals:

"Unlike the gung-ho days of the Soviet/American space race, China’s manned space programme is proceeding with cautious deliberation. Four missions in four years is not exactly boldly going where no man has gone before. This slow and steady approach might, however, win the space race’s undeclared re-run, to return human beings to the moon. Russia has no contemplated system for doing so, and America’s is, to put it politely, a paper spacecraft. As in most things, the Chinese government is playing its cards close to its chest. But do not be surprised if the next human to walk on the moon is Chinese."
Kulacki has argued that the international community still harbours flawed assumptions about China's space program - most notably, assumptions that China has only progressed by stealing technology from abroad, and that their program was wholly a reaction to the U.S. demonstration of technological power in the First Gulf War. The history reveals both to be false: key stages of development were indigenous because of China's international isolation, and China's space scientists had predicted current technologies back in the 1970s.

I will give the final word to Ren Xinmin, who was quoted as saying that the most important reason why the Chinese space program moved forward at a glacial pace for most of its history was that the scientists lacked the "freedom to fail" due to political imperatives. Although much has changed since those early days, there are still symptoms of this deficiency - the launch date of Shenzhou-9 was only made public briefly beforehand, and television broadcasts of the launch were delayed by a half-hour.

Perhaps this is the dillemma for those at the cutting-edge of science in a one-party state - in one sense you might be granted more "freedom to fail" with more secure funding and long-term planning, but in another sense, once a project is made public, technical failure becomes political failure, which cannot be tolerated.

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