20 years ago, the first Chinese manned flight

Avatar photo

On October 15, 2003, with the launch of Yang Liwei aboard the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft, China became the third nation capable of sending a human being into space.

Since the sixties, after Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight, China has dreamed of one day sending one of its compatriots into space, just the return of a nation which for a very long time has perceived itself as a “Celestial Empire”…

The origins of manned flight in China

While China was developing its first launcher which would enable the first satellite on April 24, 1970, a handful of engineers were thinking about creating a recoverable capsule in 1965. ” At that time, specifies specialist Philippe Coué, Mao was moved by the first Soviet and American manned flights and asked his engineers to do better by designing spaceships for five cosmonauts! ». However, the brutal Cultural Revolution (which began in 1966) threatened studies. Saved from repressive madness by Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, these resumed and led in 1974 to the recoverable capsule Fanhui Shei Weixing (“Recoverable test satellite”). Chinese engineers and technicians are thus familiarizing themselves with technologies that will one day be used for a manned vessel (aerodynamics, attitude control, braking system with retro rockets, thermal protection, etc.).

Project 714

Despite the lack of resources and the delay in technology, the question of manned flight does not disappear. The government established the Fifth Academy which became the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) on February 20, 1968. The latter, with the Institute of Space Medical Engineering, is learning about suborbital flights of animals (rats, dogs) using sounding rockets (T-7A). In 1969, as part of Project 714, Mao Zedong ordered the recruitment of Chinese cosmonauts. At the same time, the design offices launched the study of a manned vessel (probably two-seater) called Shuguang (“Dawn”). Unrealistic, the program was stopped in 1972.

From Project 863 to Project 921

The question of manned flight resurfaced in the 1980s, when the new leader Deng Xiaoping committed his country to the Four Modernizations intended to lead to China’s economic development. Thus, in 1986, Project 863 took shape, a vast program intended to promote science and high technology, which included a space component, including manned flight. Research institutes are undertaking new studies, such as CAST which is proposing a spacecraft close to the Soviet Soyuz. The proposal was adopted by the government on September 21, 1992 within Project 921.

After having defined the vessel – which like the Russian Soyuz is made up of a service module, a capsule (to allow the crew to return to Earth) and an orbital module – CAST launches its construction from of 1995, the date on which the selection of cosmonauts was organized. In the end, fourteen military pilots were recruited and trained. As for the vessel, called Shenzhou (“Heavenly Ship”), it has a length of 9.15 m (compared to 6.9 m for Soyuz), a maximum diameter of 2.8 m (2.6 m) and a total mass of 7.8 tonnes (7.2 t).

The first Shenzhou

Before undertaking the first manned flight, four orbital launches are carried out to qualify the spacecraft. Thus, on November 19, 1999, Shenzhou 1 was successfully placed in orbit with a mannequin and some scientific experiments on board for a 21:22 flight. Three others followed on January 9, 2001 (Shenzhou 2), March 25, 2002 (Shenzhou 3) and December 29, 2002 (Shenzhou 4). On each flight, the vessels make it possible to test the systems and subsystems that must ensure the survival of the future cosmonaut, while carrying several dozen experiments touching on various disciplines such as materials science, physics, astrophysics, etc. Plants, microorganisms and even small animals (notably mice) sometimes take place in the spacecraft for an orbital flight of around 6 days. A particularity then emerges: the orbital module can remain in space to continue the experiments autonomously for around 200 days.

Shenzhou 5

On October 15, 2003, in the presence of President Hu Jintao, a Long March 2F launcher took off from the Jiuquan base (Gobi Desert). He takes the ship Shenzhou 5 with Yang Liwei, the first yuhang yuan (“navigator of the Universe”) on board. A former air force pilot, he was 38 years old at the time and was selected according to propaganda for “his great skills” and for his “great psychological constancy”. Ten minutes after launch, the spacecraft reaches orbit (332 km perigee, 336 km apogee); the president declares: “It is a glorious day for our motherland and a historic milestone for the Chinese people”. An hour and a half later, Yang Liwei gets out of his seat, takes off his gloves, enjoys the sensations of microgravity, observes the Earth through the portholes while expressing his feelings: “I feel good in the Universe. The view from space is magnificent! ». He spends the next few hours describing what he sees and monitoring the status of the systems. He also sends several messages, and presents the flags of China and the UN. If Yang Liwei does not enter the orbital module, experiments seem to have been carried out there autonomously. Fourteen orbits later, the orbital module detaches (and remains active until May 30, 2004), then the capsule which then re-enters the dense layers of the atmosphere. After a 21:22 flight, Yang Liwei is back on Earth, the Chinese media are exultant.

The scope of the first flight

Not wishing to take any risks, the event is not broadcast live, the Chinese media providing the details after the fact. Thus, the China Daily will reveal a little later that Yang Liwei suffered during the ascent flight violent vibrations between 30 and 40 km, as well as an acceleration to several g to the point, Yang Liwei will say, that “I’m afraid of losing my skin there”.

Thus, as specialists Isabelle Sourbès-Verger and Denis Borel noted in 2008, “China becomes the third nation to have “satellized” human beings by its own means. The fact is often cited in China and abroad as proof that the country now ranks third among space powers ahead of Europe and Japan.. The two analysts immediately qualify the statement by emphasizing that China at this time uses on the one hand technologies partly inherited from those of the Soviets and, on the other hand, is behind the Europeans and the Japanese in certain areas such as planetary exploration. Twenty years later, it is clear that China has invested and masters all sectors of astronautics, allowing it not only to explore other worlds, but also to position itself as a rival and competitor to the United States…

Some references

– Two works: A very celestial empire. China conquers space, Isabelle Sourbès-Verger and Denis Borel, Ed. Dunod, Paris, 2008; Shenzhou, the Chinese in space, Philippe Coué, Ed. L’Esprit du Temps, Bègles, 2013.

An article : “Yang Liwei ground control: reminder of China’s first manned space mission”Xinhua, in China Daily, January 23, 2018.

A report titled “Aerospace hero Yang Liwei”from Chinese science and education channel CCTV-10, November 30, 2009 (in Chinese).

Philippe Varnoteaux is a doctor in history, specialist in the beginnings of space exploration in France and author of several reference works

John Walker Avatar