Project 714 – China’s human space programme in the 70′s

Project 714 was China’s first human space flight programme initiated in 1971. The programme proposed to send two astronauts into space onboard a space capsule named Shuguang 1 (Shuguang = “Dawn”) by 1974. However, the programme was later abandoned due to financial and technical difficulties.

Early Development

The Chinese leadership and science community quickly realised the huge potential of human space flight in political, military, scientific and economic terms following the historical flight into space by Yuri Gagarin on 12 April 1961, with relevant research beginning almost immediately after. In 1963, the China Academy of Sciences (CAS) formed the Committee of Interplanetary Travel to discuss the concept of human space flight. Between 1958 and 1966, a series of sounding rockets carrying dogs and rats were launched for suborbital flights to understand the impact of space flight on human body.

When the first Chinese artificial satellite programme (Project 651) was launched in 1965, the programme planner also considered the possibility of launching human into space as a follow-up. During a conference held over 11-15 May 1966, the Academy of Sciences outlined the future development plan for China’s space programme between 1966 and 1975. Zhao Jiu-zhang presented an overview of the programme. Qian Ji presented the plan for a recoverable satellite. Jia Shu-guang of the Academy of Military Medicine presented the roles of manned space flight. Xu Lian-cang of the Institute of Psychology of CAS explained the preliminary concept of a manned spacecraft.

The conference laid down the future plan for the development of Chinese space programme: to lay foundation and technological basis with the scientific experiment satellite; to focus future development on the Earth-monitoring satellite, especially the recoverable satellite, to develop a comprehensive satellite network consisting of satellites for telecommunications, meteorology, nuclear detection, missile early warning, and anti-satellite roles, and to develop manned spacecraft on the basis of the recoverable satellite technology.

In January 1966, the Academy of Sciences held a conference to evaluate and plan for the satellite development programme. Manned spacecraft was also briefly mentioned during the conference, though it couldn’t be decided which organisation should take charge of the human spacecraft programme.

Between late March and early April of 1966, the military-run National Defence Science Commission (NDSC) held a highly classified conference held in the Jingxi Hotel in Beijing to discuss the development plan for a human space programme. As well as the military planners, attendees of the conference also included officials and scientists in relevant fields from the Seventh Ministry of Machinery Industry (Ministry of Astronautics) and the Academy of Sciences. They included three top Chinese biologists and physiologist, Cai Qiao (Deputy Chief of the Academy of Military Medicine), Bei Shi-zhang (Head of the Institute of Biophysics of CAS), and Shen Qi-zhen (Head of the Chinese Academy of Biomedical Science).

One crucial question being debated during the 20-day conference was whether China should first launch biology satellites carrying animals into space, before a manned flight. Some insisted that this was a necessary first step to help scientists understand the impact of weightless, space sickness and radiation on human body. Others, however, believed that China should skip the biology satellite and go for a manned flight directly, since the experiences of the Soviet and U.S. space human space flight programmes had already shown that such impact during a short space flight mission was minimum. It was concluded that China could go for manned flight directly, though the biology satellite was not completely ruled out.

In 1967, a team headed by Wang Xi-ji in the Eighth Academy began to develop the concept of a single-seat space capsule based on the recoverable satellite technology. A design proposal of the space capsule was submitted to Dr Qian Xue-sen in October 1967 for approval. Qian was not satisfied with the proposal, believing it would encourage “individual heroism”, something negative under the political climate at the time. He asked for a more adventurous design that could carry five astronauts into orbit. The design team went back to the drawing board and produced four improved design proposals, capable of carrying one, two, three and five astronauts respectively. Qian also announced that the Chinese leadership had named the manned spacecraft Shuguang 1.

In 1968, the Shuguang 1 development was reassigned to the 501 System Design Department of the newly formed Fifth Academy (the China Academy of Space Technology, CAST). However, as priority was given to the development of China’s first artificial satellite Dongfanghong 1, the Shuguang 1 project was temporarily on a halt.

The Chinese military began research on space medicine as early as 1958. Within ten years they had developed a range of ground training and simulation facilities, including vacuum chambers, acceleration chairs, revolving chairs, and a 12-metre-diameter human centrifuge. On 1 April 1968, the Institute of Cosmos Medicine & Engineering Research (or 507th Institute in its military designation) was formed out of the Institute of Biophysics of the CAS, Unit 236 of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and the Military Work Physiology Research Institute of the Academy of Military Medicine. The military-run institute was given the responsibility of conducting research on space medicine and being in charge of astronaut selection and training.

Like most sectors in China at the time, the space programme wasn’t immune to the political turmoil that began in 1966, as a result of the so-called “Great Cultural Revolution” launched by Chairman Mao. Thousands of scientists in the space programme were removed from their posts and sent to labour camps to be ‘re-educated’, many of them prosecuted as counter-revolutionaries. Zhao Jiu-zhang, the famous space physicist and engineer, was arrested and later committed a suicide in prison. Qian Xue-sen only narrowly avoided being prosecuted. The situation only improved in 1968 when the Chinese Primer Zhou En-lai ordered the space programme to be placed under the jurisdiction of the military to protect its core personnel.

Project 714 / Shuguang 1

The Shuguang 1 project was once again on the agenda in 1970. Encouraged by the successful launch of China’s first satellite in April, the Chinese leadership gave go-ahead to the human space programme, which was codenamed Project 714 to commemorate the date (July 14) on which Chairman Mao personally approved the plan.

On 9 November 1970, over 200 space experts and senior military officials gathered at the Jingxi Hotel in Beijing to attend a conference held by the NDSC and the Seventh Ministry of Machinery Industry. The aim of the conference was to discuss the design proposals for the recoverable satellite and manned space capsule. A full-size mock-up of the Shuguang 1 capsule along with its design details were presented to the attendees of the conference. Similar to the U.S. Gemini vehicle in size and design, Shuguang 1 was configured to carry two astronauts on ejection seats to fly in Earth orbit for up to 8 days. It was to be launched atop the booster version of an extended-range ICBM (Dongfeng 6?). The first launch of the capsule was scheduled in 1973, followed by the first manned flight mission in 1974.

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) was ordered to initiate the process of selecting astronaut candidates in October 1970. The screening and selection process was carried out under high secrecy. 88 potential candidates were selected from 1,840 air force fighter jet pilots for a screening process in a military hospital in Beijing. Finally, 19 people were selected as astronaut candidates to receive the training for manned space flight missions.

The Chinese military began to consider building a new missile and space centre in 1969, in the wake of war preparation following a series of skirmishes on the borders with the Soviet Union. Qian Xue-sen also suggested to build a new launch centre closer to the Equator in order to support high-orbit satellite and manned mission launches. Between December 1969 and Match 1970, a search team headed by the Deputy Commander of Base 20 (Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre) inspected and surveyed 25 regions in 9 provinces both by foot and from air. Songlin near the city of Xichang in Sichuan Province was finally chosen for the new launch centre.

Located in a valley surrounded by mountains, the site for the new launch centre made it difficult to be detected or struck by potential enemies. Part of the facility was built underground or in tunnels in order to improve its survivability. Construction of the launch centre began in September 1970, but progressed slowly due to a lack of clear project objectives and funding. There was still no launch pad by 1975, and the whole project was soon suspended. The project was didn’t resume until September 1978, when the launch centre was selected to support the launch of the country’s first geostationary communications satellite (Project 331).

Astronaut Training

Under the suggestion of Dr Qian Xue-sen, the Institute of Cosmos Medicine & Engineering Research (a.k.a. 507th Institute in its military designation) was formed on 1 April 1968 to conduct research on space medicine and to take the responsibility of recruiting and training astronaut candidates.

The selection and screening of the astronauts for Project 714 began in October 1970. A specialist team consisting of the personnel of the 507th Institute and the PLA Air Force was sent to look for candidates from activity-duty fighter jet pilots. As well as being experienced in flying and physically near perfect, the candidates must also be regarded as politically loyal to the Communist Party. From 1,840 potential candidates, 215 were selected for a second round of screening. From them, 88 were chosen to go to Beijing for a lengthy selection process.

The selection of the astronauts was conducted inside a military hospital in Beijing under tight security and high secrecy. The whereabouts of the candidates was classified. All the people involved were prohibited from making any contact with the outside world or their families. Even the candidates themselves were not given the true reason for the selection process, and they were under the impression that they were being selected to test fly a new fighter jet.

The highly challenging selection process included strict medical examination and observation, and experience of weightless inside small cargo planes. By the end of the selection process, only 33 people were kept. After one of month of selection and comparison by the selection committee, 19 candidates were finally chosen to take part in the training to become astronauts.

On 15 May 1971, the PLA Air Force formed a preparation team responsible for organising and coordinating the astronaut training. A unit of 500 personnel was being formed to provide support and security protection for the astronaut candidates. The astronaut training was scheduled to commence in November 1971 for a possible crewed mission in 1973.

The End

Project 714 faced enormous technical and financial difficulties from the beginning. With the majority of its resources and funding being allocated to the recoverable satellite and long-range ballistic missile projects as a priority, the Fifth Academy made little progress on the development of the Shuguang 1 capsule.

China descent into further chaos in September 1971, after the country’s No.2 leader Lin Biao fled the country and died in a plane crash in Mongolia. The PLA Air Force, which was seen as being loyal to Lin, was cleansed with many of its senior officials investigated and prosecuted. Staff members working for Office 714, the department responsible for overseeing astronaut training and the human space flight programme, were interrogated for their collusion with Lin Biao and his men in the alleged plot against Chairman Mao. The department was disbanded and the astronaut candidates reassigned to their original units. The construction of the Xichang launch centre also stopped while the 12,000 engineering troops were waiting for new instruction.

By the second half of 1972, funding for Shuguang 1 development had completely dried out and most of the personnel working on the project were reassigned to the satellite programme. A dozen of engineers in the Fifth Academy continued working on the Shuguang 1 development, but even this wasn’t sustainable. By late 1973, all but one person had left the Shuguang 1 project. In February 1974, the proposed extended-range ICBM development was cancelled, leaving Shuguang 1 without a suitable launch vehicle.

On 23 October 1974, the Seventh Ministry of Machinery Industry and NDSC jointly reported to the Central Special Committee (overseeing strategic weapon programme) and Central Military Commission on the development of the human space flight programme. The reported admitted that the development of the Shuguang 1 capsule had made little progress since the launch of the programme in 1970. The report called for ‘necessary adjustment’ to the programme by postponing the first launch to the late 1970s.

Unlike its grand launch in 1970, there was no definitive ending to Project 714. Since the project was personally approved by Chairman Mao, nobody would dare to ask it to be cancelled. The premature project simply died out as a result of the country’s weak economic strength and poor industrial capabilities. Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai was later quoted as saying that China shouldn’t join the Soviet Union and the United States in their space race, and that the country should focus on things on the Earth first, and that the Chinese space programme should be focused on application satellites for the time being.

Despite the setback, the Chinese space sector remained hopeful that the human space flight programme would be revived one day, especially after the successful launch of the recoverable satellite (Fanhuishi Shiyan Weixing, FSW) in 1974. Rumours continued to speculate throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s on possible manned space capsule and space station development. However, China’s new leaders, Deng Xiao-ping, decided to put a stop to human space flight and a whole range of other ambitious defence and aerospace projects, so that the country could focus its resources on economic development.

Categories: Human Space Flight, Space Programme


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