Shenzhou Programme (Project 921)

China officially embarked on a human spaceflight programme (Project 921) in 1992, with the goal of constructing a permanently-occupied space station on Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The first phase of the programme run between 1992 and 2005, with the objective of developing a crewed spacecraft vehicle that can carry astronauts to orbit and then return them to Earth safely. On 15 October 2003, China’s first astronaut Yang Liwei flew on the Shenzhou 5 mission, making China the third country in the world, after Russia and the United States, to be capable of sending human into space independently.


Following the unsuccessful Project 714 to send astronauts into space in the early 1970s, China had focused its space programme solely on applications satellites for the next decade. However, discussions over human spaceflight re-emerged in the mid-1980s against a background of a global advance to establish human presence on Earth orbit. The Soviet Union had successfully orbited a number of Salyut/Almaz space stations and was about to begin the construction of a larger multi-module station Mir. The U.S. had flown the Space Shuttle and unveiled an ambitious plan to build Space Station Freedom. Japan and Europe also announced their plans to send human into space. There was a concern that without the country’s own human space programme China would fall behind other nations in the development of space technology.

Another event that triggered the human spaceflight debate was the 1983 U.S. Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), more commonly known as “Star Wars”, which called for the development of sophisticated and innovative technologies in order to prevent missile attacks from other countries. While the programme was primarily targeted at the Soviet Union, Chinese military analysts concluded that the programme could bring a global competition in pursuing new and advanced technologies, including military space technology, which would leave those nations without such capabilities highly vulnerable—a painful lesson China had learned in the 19th century when its imperial armies were powerless against foreign invaders equipped with modern fire arms.

The discussions eventually led to a decision in 1986 to launch a state-funded programme, known as the “863 Programme”, with the aim to to accelerate China’s research and development in certain key areas of science and technology. The programme covered 15 high-priority projects in seven technological fields, including automation, biotechnology, energy, information technology, lasers, new materials, and space. Rather than delivering specific applications or products, the 863 Programme was intended to nurture China’s fundamental research in new and creative technologies.

The space technology section of the 863 Programme was focused on the development of human spaceflight technologies, including the heavy orbital launcher and crew transportation system (Project 863-204), and the space station (Project 863-205). While having a space station (as opposite to landing human on the Moon) as the ultimate objective of China’s human spaceflight programme was never a point of contention, debates existed within the aeronautical and astronautical industry over the type of spacecraft vehicle that should be developed as the crew transportation system.

In 1987, the Project 863-204 Committee issued a request for proposals to 60 different research units nationwide. Six of the proposals submitted to the Committee were selected for further evaluation. In July 1988, the Committee’s Expert Group in charge of the process chose two design proposals as the most viable options for engineering development: the Tian Jiao 1 space shuttle proposed by CALT (China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, or First Academy) and a three-module capsule vehicle modelled after the Soviet Soyuz proposed by Beijing Institute of Space Machinery and Electronics (508 Institute). However, scientists of the Ministry of Astronautics could not agree on which proposal should be adopted for development. In the end, the ministry proposed to develop the capsule vehicle as the first step to launch by 2000, and then the space shuttle system in the second phase by 2015.

Programme Launch

Early discussions and debates over the human spaceflight plan were largely limited within the aerospace industry and academic circle, while China’s political leadership was reluctant to commit to a project of this scale, which could be hugely expensive and politically sensitive. There were powerful voices within the government arguing against a human spaceflight programme, questioning whether this was the most appropriate way to advance China’s space capability, or whether China had the necessary technical expertise, industrial capabilities, and financial strength to support such a project.

By 1990, the Chinese Ministry of Aeronautical and Astronautical Industry (MAAI) had formulated a plan for developing China’s human spaceflight technology, beginning with a crewed capsule to send astronauts into space, and eventually constructing a permanent space station on Earth orbit. This guiding principles was summarised in a set of four-character Chinese phases, which can be translated as: Can’t not do it (不可不搞); Can’t do it big (不可大搞); Start with capsule (飞船起步); Smooth and steady development (平稳发展).

According to the MAAI’s plan, China’s human spaceflight programme will be implemented in three phases over a timespan of thirty years:

Step 1: to launch two unmanned flight tests and a crewed mission by 2000, establish the basic infrastructure for supporting human spaceflight missions, and carry out space applications.

Step 2: to achieve the orbital rendezvous and docking between the crew capsule and target vehicle by 2007, and launch 8 t-mass temporarily crew-tended space laboratories.

Step 3: to construct a 20 t-mass permanent space station and achieve long-term crew-tended space applications by 2020.

A turning point came in 1990, when Chinese military strategists witnessed with astonishment the swift victory of the U.S.-led Coalition Forces against the Iraqi forces during the First Gulf War. The Chinese military noticed in particular how space-based systems enabled the U.S. forces to gain battlefield dominance over a larger but less well equipped enemy. As a result, the PLA lent its crucial support to the development of space technology, including human spaceflight. In a memo to all senior political leaders, General Liu Huaqing, Executive Deputy Chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC), urged the political leadership to make a swift decision on the human spaceflight programme.

After being briefed by the MAAI on its plan for the human spaceflight programme in March 1991, Chinese Premier Li Peng instructed the ministry to conduct a detailed feasibility study, especially on the estimated programme cost, for the first phase of the human spaceflight plan. In April, the MAAI issued a request for proposals for a crewed capsule spacecraft that could be launched by the CZ-2E launch vehicle, which had a payload capacity of just under 8,000 kg to LEO. The request went to the ministry’s three prime spacecraft R&D centres: China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT, or First Academy), China Academy of Space Technology (CAST, or Fifth Academy), and Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST, or Eighth Academy).

After an evaluation of all the design proposals submitted by the three academies, a three-module capsule vehicle proposed by CALT was chosen. The vehicle was modelled after the Soviet Soyuz vehicle, but featured a larger orbital module with its own propulsion and power systems, which allowed it to fly autonomously for another six months after the end of the crewed mission. The design and development of the vehicle, however, was assigned to CAST, so that CALT could focus on the development of a human-rated version of the CZ-2E launcher. Some of the development work including the spacecraft’s service module, propulsion and power system was also to be shared by SAST.

Based on the design proposal submitted by the MAAI, the State Council tasked the military-run Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (COSTIND) to conduct a more detailed feasibility study for the entire human spaceflight programme, including the earthbound infrastructure for launch, tracking, communications, and recovery of the spacecraft vehicle. 200 experts working in nine groups spent six months to work out detailed plans for every aspect of the programme, including technological approaches, key technical challenges and solutions, development phases, project roadmap and timeframe, and estimated costs.

The feasibility study was signed off by the government’s Central Special Committee on 1 August 1992. The committee concluded that while China did not possess the capabilities to support a full-scale human spaceflight programme comparable to those of the United Sates and Russia, it could achieve some breakthroughs in certain selected key areas. As a result, the primary objective of the first phase of the programme was to develop a capsule spacecraft comparable to the fourth-generation Soyuz-TM vehicle. By then, the estimated cost of the first phase of the programme had spiralled from the original estimate of RMB 3 billion to a staggering RMB 14.9 billion. The programme would also be the most complex and technologically challenging industrial project China had ever taken on.

On 21 September 1992, the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee’s Politburo Standing Committee held a dedicated session at the Zhongnanhai compound to discuss the human spaceflight plan. The session was chaired by Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin and attended by all members of the standing committee, as well as three Party grandees: Yang Shangkun, Wan Li, and Bo Yibo. Premier Li Peng explained to the committee members that the human spaceflight programme was not merely an engineering project, but also an opportunity to upgrade China’s space industrial base and train a new-generation of space talents. He emphasized that embarking on a human spaceflight programme was a political move to build national prestige, and therefore should not be measured purely by tangible financial gain.

The Committee members unanimously agreed to adopt the human spaceflight programme as a national goal, and approved the Central Special Committee’s request to launch the programme, including the three-step plan to build the space station. Party chief Jiang Zemin also asked that the space capsule development to be carried out in secrecy. To commemorate the date when the programme was officially launched (September 21st in Chinese date format), the China Human Spaceflight Programme was given a code name Project 921.

The military-run COSTIND (later PLA General Armaments Department) was in charge of the overall human spaceflight programme. Its subordinated China Manned Space Office (921 Office) was responsible for the daily management of the programme. There were 7 key programme components, with their responsibilities undertaken by the various government and military agencies and industrial contractors.

Astronaut selection and training (921-1): Beijing Institute of Space Medicine Engineering (507 Institute), a.k.a. Astronaut Centre of China (ACC)

Space applications (921-2): China Academy of Sciences (CAS)
Crewed spacecraft (921-3): China Academy of Space Technology (CAST, or Fifth Academy)
CZ-2F launch vehicle (921-4): China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT, or First Academy)
Launch site (921-5): Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre (JSLC, or Base 20)
Telemetry, tracking and command (921-6): Xi’an Satellite Control Centre (XSCC, or Base 26)
Recovery site (921-7): Xi’an Satellite Control Centre (XSCC, or Base 26)

Shenzhou Development

The primary goal of the first phase Project 921 was to develop a crew spacecraft vehicle that can carry the astronauts for solo orbital flights, or to ferry them to and from the future space station on orbit. China’s spacecraft vehicle, named Shenzhou (“Devine Vessel”), resembles the Russian Soyuz-TM, though slightly larger in size and has been developed largely from Chinese technology. Like the Soyuz-TM, Shenzhou consists of a forward orbital module, a re-entry module, and an aft service module. The Shenzhou development has benefited from some Russian assistance and consultation, especially around the life support system, the rendezvous docking system, and the re-entry capsule. Russia also provided assistance to help the training of Chinese astronauts.

The prime contract for the Shenzhou spacecraft was awarded to Beijing-based CAST, which was responsible for the spacecraft’s general design as well as its orbital and re-entry modules, with Shanghai-based SAST sharing the development of the spacecraft’s propulsion, power, and docking systems. The spacecraft’s environment control and life support system (ECLSS) was developed by Beijing Institute of Space Medicine Engineering (507 Institute). The telemetry and communication systems were developed by the China Electronics Technology Corporation (CETC).

Development of the Shenzhou spacecraft began in November 1992, two months after the launch of Project 921. The Shenzhou development programme, codenamed “921-3”, was carried out in four stages: conceptual design, prototype development, unmanned flight testing, and manned flight testing. CAST created the Manned Spacecraft System Design Office under its 501 Design Department to lead the manned spacecraft development. Qi Faren, a well respected veteran in spacecraft design, was appointed the Chief Designer for the crewed spacecraft system.

Qi and his team spent the first four months revisiting the original design proposal produced in 1991. They went through the functionality, specifications, development schedule, and budgeted cost of all sub-systems of the spacecraft with SAST and other project partners, so that each participant was clear about their tasks and requirements. This phase of the design process was completed in March 1993

The preliminary design phase began in April 1993, with the spacecraft’s overall design completed in December of the same year. It was confirmed that the spacecraft was to be built in three configurations: the basic solo flight variant, the crew transport variant with a docking port, and the emergency escape craft for the space station. The preliminary design of the spacecraft’s 13 sub-systems was also completed in this phase. The detailed design phase began in January 1994 and finished in June. At this time the spacecraft was officially named Shenzhou. This was followed by the prototype development phase that began in July 1994.

By the time the engineering development phase began in 1997, the Shenzhou development programme was already 18 months behind the schedule. The target date for the first unmanned flight test, originally set for 1997—98, had slip to late 1999 and even this revised target seemed unlikely to be achieved. Facing strong criticism, General Cao Gangchuan, Director of the PLA General Armaments Department (GAD) and Chief Commander of Project 921, proposed a daring plan to turn an electric test article into a flying vehicle for the first unmanned test flight. This would be a highly risky mission since the vehicle had not been fully tested for orbital flight, but it could save the programme from a major embarrassment.

In November 1998, Party General Secretary and President Jiang Zemin was invited to visit the Beijing Space City, where the Shenzhou spacecraft was being built. Jiang was given a tour to the newly built Mission Control Centre and the test spacecraft vehicle under construction. Highly impressed with what the programme had achieved, Jiang encouraged the programme staff to endeavour to send Chinese astronaut into space. The PR stunt helped the programme gain crucial political support and silenced its critics.

Astronaut Selection and Training

Under the suggestion of Dr Qian Xuesen, the father of China’s missile and rocketry programme, the Beijing Institute of Space Medicine & Engineering (507 Institute) was formed on 1 April 1968 to conduct researches in space medicine and be in charge of astronaut selection and training. 507 Institute took part in the astronaut selection process for China’s human spaceflight mission in 1971 (Project 714). A total of 88 potential candidates were picked from a pool of 1,918 military fighter pilots to undergo a highly secretive selection process in Beijing. Eventually 19 people were chosen to join the Astronaut Training Group.

After Project 714 was abandoned in the mid-1970s, 507 Institute narrowly escaped the fate of being axed and was allowed to continue its research on space medicine. By the early 1980s, the institute had built a large ground astronaut training and testing facility in the suburbs of Beijing, which consisted of spaceflight environment simulators (vacuum chambers), spaceflight dynamic simulators (human centrifuge, vibration table, impact tower, etc.), and spacecraft simulators. The facility was partially declassified in the mid-1980s, with publicity photos showing human testers undergoing various astronaut training and space medical testing at the facility.

Following the launch of Project 921 in 1992, 507 Institute became the leading organisation responsible for all human-related elements of the programme, codenamed “921-1”. These included the development of the Shenzhou vehicle’s life support and environment control system, biotelemetry system, astronaut seat, space food, pressure suit, and ground training and simulation facilities, as well as managing astronaut selection and training, and providing medical monitoring and support for the crews throughout the mission preparation and implementation stages.

Just like Russia and the United States, China has limited its early astronaut recruitments to active-service military pilots only, a reflection of the test flight nature of the missions in the early stage of the manned spaceflight programme. Candidates must be aged between 25 and 30, in a height range between 160 and 172 cm and weight range between 50 and 70 kg, with at least 800 flying hours, degree-level education, and outstanding physical and mental conditions. Candidates are also screened for their political loyalty and professionalism. In addition, having successfully handled emergency situations in flight is viewed as a distinctive advantage.

On 5 January 1998, the PLA Astronaut Group was formed under 507 Institute, consisting of 14 astronaut candidates as well as technical and training staff. The astronaut candidates were selected from a pool of 1,506 qualifying fighter jet pilots, of which 886 were shortlisted for the selection process. After a six-month screening and selection, 60 candidates were kept. Finally, 12 people were chosen as the candidates for the Shenzhou test flight missions. They were: Yang Liwei (杨利伟), Fei Junlong (费俊龙), Nie Haisheng (聂海胜), Zhai Zhigang (翟志刚), Liu Boming (刘伯明), Jing Haipeng (景海鹏), Liu Wang (刘旺), Zhang Xiaoguang (张晓光), Chen Quan (陈全), Pan Zhanchun (潘占春), Deng Qingming (邓清明), and Zhao Chuandong (赵传东).

In addition, two air force pilots, Wu Jie (吴杰) and Li Qinglong (李庆龙), were selected in 1995 to receive a two-year training programme for flying the Soyuz-TM spacecraft at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Russia. Among them, Wu Jie was trained as the Mission Commander with speciality in rendezvous docking, and Li Qinglong was trained as the Flight Engineer with speciality in extravehicular activity (EVA). They completed their training programme and returned China in January 1998 to join the training programme for Project 921 missions.

Earthbound Infrastructure

The scope of Project 921 covered not only the development of a new spacecraft vehicle, but also the upgrade of China’s entire earthbound spaceflight infrastructure. A state-of-the-art facility known as Beijing Space City was built at Tangjialing, in the northwest suburbs of Beijing. The 2.3 square kilometres (577 acres) facility would serve as a research and development hub, astronaut training base, and mission control centre for China’s human spaceflight and other key space missions.

To support the launch of the Shenzhou vehicle, the heaviest payload ever launched by China at the time, a new launch complex was constructed at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre, including a dedicated launch pad (Pad 921) with an umbilical tower and underground flame trenches and deflectors, and a technical area where the launch vehicle and spacecraft would be checked out and assembled. The iconic Launch Vehicle Vertical Assembly Building inside the technical area resembles the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) of Launch Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Centre.

The new launch complex at Jiuquan also adopted a completely new ‘vertical’ checkout procedure, with the launch vehicle assembled and mated with the spacecraft vehicle and payload fairing vertically inside the vehicle assembly building, and then rolled out vertically atop a mobile launcher platform to the launch pad, where the vehicle is checked, fuelled and launched.

China had already developed a comprehensive network of ground tracking, telemetry and command (TT&C) stations since the late 1960s to support its ballistic missile testing and orbital launch missions, with additional tracking and communications capabilities provided by the Yuanwang missile instrumentation ships deployed to the West and South Pacific. To support the human spaceflight missions, the existing TT&C network was upgraded with the Unified S-band (USB) tracking and communication system. Six domestic ground tracking stations were chosen to support the human spaceflight missions: Dongfeng (Jiuquan), Weinan, Qingdao, Xiamen, Kashgar, and Hetian, added with three new overseas tracking stations in Namibia, Kenya, and Pakistan. They would be augmented by four Yuanwang tracking ships stationed in the West Pacific off the Japanese coast, the South Pacific near New Zealand, the South Atlantic off the West African coast, and the Indian Ocean near Australia, to provide a global coverage for the human spaceflight missions.

The tracking stations and ships are linked together by a cable and wireless communications network centred at the Xi’an Satellite Control Centre (XSCC) and the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Centre (BACC), which also have connections with the Launch Mission Command and Control Centre (LMCCC) at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre.

Finally, a landing zone was set up in Siziwang Banner, Inner Mongolia as the primary Shenzhou landing site. The landing zone consisted of forward radar station to capture the trajectory of the returning vehicle, the primary measurement site to provide telemetry, tracking, communications and weather services, and the ground/air search and rescue teams. A secondary landing zone was also set up east of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre. Additional emergency landing zones were set up both on land and in the East China Sea during the launch of the spacecraft vehicle.

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