China Underground > Magazine > China Magazine > Chinese Space Program: a Photographic History

Chinese Space Program: a Photographic History

Chinese space program history pictures: long march rockets, the Chinese space laboratory, Shanzhou capsules, Chinese moon rovers, Chinese landers, and more

Mao Zedong started a nuclear program after the US threatened to use nuclear weapons during the Korean War.

Mao’s purpose was to transform China into a respected world power. China started to develop its own strategic weapons, including nuclear bombs and warheads during the Communist Party Central Committee meeting held on January 15, 1955.

The Chinese nuclear weapons program was codenamed “02”.

“We do not only need more airplanes and cannons,we also need nuclear weapons.
In the world nowadays, to avoid being bullied, we can’t afford not having them.” Mao Zedong

Qian Xuesen made important contributions to China’s missile and space program.

The first Twelve-Year-Plan

The development of the first ballistic missile program was adopted on March 1, 1956, and is known as the first Twelve-Year-Plan for Chinese aerospace. State Council Premier Zhou Enlai presided over the development of China’s 12-year scientific development plan, with the main goal to develop the jet propulsion industry, rocket technology, and the ballistic missile program as a national key development project.

The newly founded Fifth Academy of the National Defense Ministry was led by Qian Xuesen (Tsien_Hsue-shen, 钱学森; 1911 – 2009) a Chinese engineer who contributed to aerodynamics and rocket science, recruited from MIT, and in 1950 deported from the United States after being accused of being a communist during the Red Scare despite protests by his colleagues.

sino-soviet propaganda

Related: Sino-soviet propaganda posters

In 1957 the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1, mankind’s first artificial satellite. A year later, Mao announced he wanted to make China an equal with the superpowers adopting Project 581 (中国科学院 581组) to place a satellite in orbit within one year, mark the 10th anniversary of the PRC’s founding. According to the agreements, China would have benefited from the cooperation with the Soviet Union, imitating its successful model.

Since then, the Chinese Academy of Sciences carried out space technology planning and academic activities, proceeding with the construction of a space environment simulation laboratory, and satellite measurement technology.

The project was composed of three stages: developing sounding rockets, then launching small satellites, and finally launching large satellites.

Premier Zhou Enlai inspected the Northwest Integrated Missile Test Base (Base 20)

The construction of China’s first missile test base, code-named Base 20 (西北综合导弹试验基地), started in April 1958 and it entered service on October 20 of the same year.

The first Chinese missile was built in October 1958 as a reverse-engineered copy of the Soviet R-2 short-range ballistic missile (SRBM), itself an upgraded version of a German V-2 rocket. Its range was 590 km, weighing 20.5 tons and propelled with liquid oxygen and alcohol.

China’s first-ever T-7 sounding rocket was successfully launched from the Nanhui launch site on February 19, 1960.

April 1960 Qian Xuesen (left) in the Shanghai Nanhui base
April 1960. Qian Xuesen (left) in the Shanghai Nanhui base.

China started to develop medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) in July 1960, with an increased range double that of the R-2.

sino-soviet propaganda

China and the Soviet Union had cordial relations throughout the 50s. Since 1956 (when Nikita Khrushchev denounced the legacy of Stalin), China and the USSR had progressively diverged about Marxist ideology, and, by 1961, when the doctrinal differences proved intractable, the Communist Party of China formally denounced the Soviet variety of communism as a product of “Revisionist Traitors”.

Chinese space program after the Sino-Soviet Split

Due to Cold War tension, Mao decided in December 1963 that China should develop a missile defense system capacity. During a conference held on February 2, 1964, directive 640 (640指示) was adopted (later known as Project 640).

The first successful launch of a Chinese 1059 SRBM missile copy of the R-2 was conducted only two months later on November 5, 1960. The missile was also designated DF-1.

On November 5, 1960, China’s first short-range missile was successfully launched. “Dongfeng 1” (DF-1) is a short-range ground-to-ground ballistic missile, imitation of the former Soviet Union P-2 missile.

The missile has not been deployed in actual combat, but China through the imitation of the P-2 missile to establish a missile research system, training a group of missile experts.

First of the Dongfeng missiles, the DF-1, was a licensed copy of the Soviet R-2 (SS-2 Sibling) short-range ballistic missile (SRBM). The DF-1 had a single RD-101 rocket engine, and used alcohol for fuel with liquid oxygen (LOX) as an oxidizer. The missile had maximum range of 550 km and a 500 kg payload. Limited numbers of DF-1 were produced in the 1960s, and have since been retired. In the picture, Dongfeng 1 at Beijing Military Museum.

The first DF-2 MRBM was tested on March 21, 1962, but failed.

chinese Dongfeng 2
A Chinese Dongfeng 2 (CSS-1) medium-range ballistic missile.

The first successful launch and recovery of a T-7A(S1) sounding rocket carrying a biological experiment (transporting eight white mice) was on July 19, 1964, from Base 603 (安徽广德誓节渡中国科学院六〇三基地.

December 13, 1963 in Guangdong Guangde was launched the first T-7A.
Base 603 today. In the image you can see the original rocket ramp (not to be confused with the crane in the background …)

The Chinese conducted their first nuclear test, code-named 596, on 16 October 1964, and acknowledged that their program would have been impossible to complete without the Soviet help.

Chinese nuclear program 1964
In mid-October 1966, a series of cold tests were carried out successively.
Chinese nuclear test

Related: Chinese nuclear experiments during the sixties

In August 1965, the CPC Central Committee approved the “development of China’s satellite workers.” China started to develop the DF-5 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program in August 1965. It was designed to carry a single nuclear warhead and has a maximum range of 12000 km.

On October 27, 1966, a nuclear-tipped DF-2A missile was launched from Jiuquan and the 20 kilotons yield nuclear warhead exploded at the height of 569 meters over the target in Lop Nor or Base 21 situated 894 km away.

The Long March rockets

China launched its first satellite, known as Dong Fang Hong 1 (lit. “The East is Red 1”), into Earth orbit on its Long March space rocket (长征系列运载火箭) on April 24, 1970.

June 14, 2012, Inner Mongolia Ejinaqi, Jiuquan Satellite Launch Base . At the beginning of 1958, China built the first space launch site in China on the Gobi Desert north of Jiuquan. During the sixties in the base were tested and launched the Long March rockets. In the picture, a scrap left in the Gobi desert.

In November 1966, it was decided to build a second ballistic missile test site, the Northern Missile Test Site (华北导弹试验场) in Shanxi Province, farther away from China’s northern border.

As the space race between the two superpowers reached its climax with the conquest of the Moon, Mao and Zhou Enlai decided on July 14, 1967, that the PRC should not be left behind, and started China’s own crewed space program.

China’s first spacecraft designed for human occupancy was named Shuguang-1 (曙光一号) in January 1968. China’s Space Medical Institute (航天医学工程研究所) was founded on April 1, 1968, and the Central Military Commission issued the order to start the selection of astronauts.

Long March development
The Long March rocket development process was difficut and required perseverance and encouragement, very much likely the Red Army’s Long March. For this reason, according to Liu Baoyong, it was named after that event.
The Dongfenghong 01
The Dongfanghong 01

As part of the “third line” effort to relocate critical defense infrastructure to the relatively remote interior (away from the Soviet border), it was decided to construct a new space center in the mountainous region of Xichang in the Sichuan province, code-named Base 27.

Long March 1 rocket
Long March 1 rocket at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center

On April 1, 1970, a train loaded with the Dong Fang 01 satellite and the Long March No. 1 arrived at the China Northwest Jiuquan satellite launch site.


On April 24 1970, the satellite was launched into orbit by the scheduled time, 9:50 pm. The State Broadcasting Bureau received satellite broadcast “Dongfanghong” a clear audio signal.

Chinese space program history
China launched the first man-made earth satellite on April 24, 1970 (“Dongfanghong” No. 1 ), which is the fifth country in the world to launch satellites independently of the Soviet Union, the United States, France and Japan. As of the end of 1984, a total of 16 artificial earth satellites were launched.
China's first re-entry capsule
At the beginning of 1973, re-entry capsule technology entered a positive development stage. On November 26, 1975, the first re-entry capsule was launched on time. The satellite entered the scheduled orbit, at the ground height of 173 km, apogee height of 483 km, 63 degrees in orbit accuracy. Three days after, the capsule made a smooth return to China. The picture shows the visitors in Xi’an satellite monitoring and control center looking at the China’s first re-entry capsule.

Chinese Space Program after the Cultural Revoution and Mao’s Death

After Mao died on September 9, 1976, his rival, Deng Xiaoping, denounced during the Cultural Revolution as reactionary and therefore forced to retire from all his offices, slowly re-emerged as China’s new leader in 1978. At first, the new development was slowed. Several key projects deemed unnecessary were simply canceled. Nevertheless, some development did proceed.

Further development of the Long March rocket series allowed the PRC to initiate a commercial launch program in 1985, which has since launched over 30 foreign satellites, primarily for European and Asian interests.

The next crewed space program was even more ambitious and proposed in March 1986, as Astronautics plan 863-2. This consisted of a crewed spacecraft (Project 863-204) used to ferry astronaut crews to a space station (Project 863-205). Several spaceplane designs were rejected two years later and a simpler space capsule was chosen instead. Although the project did not achieve its goals, it would ultimately evolve into the 1992 Project 921.

The Ministry of Aerospace Industry was founded on July 5, 1988.

Chinese Space Program in the ’90s and 00s

Along with Deng’s policy of capitalist reforms in the Chinese economy, Chinese culture also changed. Therefore, names used in the space program, previously all chosen from the revolutionary history of the PRC, were soon replaced with mystical-religious ones. Thus, new Long March carrier rockets were renamed Divine arrow (神箭), spacecraft Divine vessel (神舟), space plane Divine Dragon (神龙), land-based high-power laser Divine light (神光) and supercomputer Divine might (神威).

Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center
Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, today

Project 921

In 1992, authorization and funding were given for the first phase of Project 921, which was a plan to launch a crewed spacecraft. The Shenzhou program (神舟) had four uncrewed test flights and two crewed missions. The program put the first Chinese citizen, Yang Liwei, into orbit on 15 October 2003.

The first one was Shenzhou 1 on November 20, 1999. On January 9, 2001, Shenzhou 2 launched carrying test animals. Shenzhou 3 and Shenzhou 4 were launched in 2002, carrying test dummies. Following these was the successful Shenzhou 5, China’s first crewed mission in space on October 15, 2003, which carried Yang Liwei in orbit for 21 hours and made China the third nation to launch a human into orbit. Shenzhou 6 followed two years later ending the first phase of Project 921. Missions are launched on the Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. The China Crewed Space Engineering Office provides engineering and administrative support for the crewed Shenzhou missions.

In June 1993, China Aerospace Industry Corporation (National Space Bureau) was founded in Beijing.

On February 15, 1996, during the flight of the first Long March 3B heavy carrier rocket carrying Intelsat 708, the rocket veered off course immediately after clearing the launch platform, crashing 22 seconds later. It crashed 1.85 km (1.15 mi) away from the launch pad into a nearby mountain village.

Long march rocket CZ-2E

Lessons learned from Shenzhou 1 to Shenzhou 5

Starting in 1990, the Long March rocket entered the international market. However, several setbacks occurred during the early 1990s. On January 26, 1995, a Long March 2E rocket veered off course two seconds after take-off from Xichang space center and exploded, killing at least six on the ground. On February 14, 1996, a similar failure occurred during the launch of Intelsat 708: The rocket veered severely off course immediately after clearing the launch tower and crashed into a village.

On the 50th anniversary of the PRC’s founding, China launched the Shenzhou 1 spacecraft on November 20, 1999, and recovered it after a flight of 21 hours. The country became the third country with a successful crewed space program by sending an astronaut into space aboard Shenzhou 5 on October 15, 2003, for more than 21 hours.

Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei
On October 15, 2003, the Long March 2F rocket successfully launched the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft/orbiter carrying Yang Liwei, China’s first astronaut into space; China thus became the third nation to send a person in space independently, after the Soviet Union/Russia and the United States.
Shenzhou 5 re-entry module
Shenzhou 5 re-entry module

On October 12, 2005, Long March 2F launched the Shenzhou 6 with two astronauts.

China has since turned its focus to extraterrestrial exploration starting with the Moon. The first Chinese Lunar Exploration Program un-crewed lunar orbiter Chang’e 1 was successfully launched on October 24, 2007, making China the fifth nation to successfully orbit the Moon.

On June 1, 2007, Long March rockets completed their 100th launch overall.

long march rocket debris
On April 9 2011, rocket carrier “Chang Zheng-3A ” (Long March 3A) debris – launched from Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan – crashed in Tianlin, Guangxi.

On October 31, 2011, a Long March 2F rocket lifted the Shenzhou 8 uncrewed spacecraft which docked twice with the Tiangong 1 module.

Liu Yang (刘洋) was selected for the crew of Shenzhou 9, the first manned mission to the Chinese space station Tiangong 1, along with Jing Haipeng, the first repeat Chinese space traveller, and Liu Wang. Liu became the first female Chinese astronaut to go into space.
Docking the space station

On the June 11, 2013, a Long March 2F, launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, putting three astronauts into orbit for the Shenzhou 10 mission.

Gaofen-9 satellite
China on Monday launched its most sophisticated observation satellite, Gaofen-9, as part of the country’s high-definition Earth observation project. Gaofen-9 was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the northwestern province of Gansu at 12:42 p.m. aboard a Long March-2D carrier rocket. It was the 209th flight of the Long March rocket series.
Long march 2f rocket
Long march 2f rocket ready to launch

As of March 2016, there have been 225 Long March missions.

Chang’e 1, the first unmanned Chinese lunar-orbiting spacecraft

On October 24, 2007, the Long March 3A successfully launched (18:05 GMT+8) the “Chang’e 1” lunar orbiting spacecraft from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center.

Chang’e 1 ( 嫦娥一号) named after the Chinese Moon goddess, Chang’e was an unmanned Chinese lunar-orbiting spacecraft, part of the first phase of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program.

Chang’e 1 in space

The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (中国探月) also known as the Chang’e program is an ongoing series of robotic Moon missions by the China National Space Administration (CNSA). The program incorporates lunar orbiters, landers, rovers, and sample return spacecraft, launched using Long March rockets.

Chang’e 1 was launched on 24 October 2007 at 10:05:04 UTC from Xichang Satellite Launch Center. It left lunar transfer orbit on 31 October and entered lunar orbit on 5 November. The first picture of the Moon was relayed on 26 November 2007. On 12 November 2008, a map of the entire lunar surface was released, produced from data collected by Chang’e 1 between November 2007 and July 2008. Chang’e 1 created the most accurate and highest resolution 3-D map ever of the lunar surface until it was surpassed by the LRO and Chang’e 1 conducted the world’s first passive, multi-channel, microwave remote sensing of the Moon.

On September 25, 2008, a Long March 2F launched Shenzhou 7, China’s first three-man mission and first EVA mission.

The second phase of Project 921 started with Shenzhou 7 (September 2008), China’s first spacewalk mission.

The PRC initially designed the Shenzhou spacecraft with docking technologies imported from Russia, therefore compatible with the International Space Station.

Chang’er 2 is a Chinese unmanned lunar probe that was launched on 1 October 2010. China released the first three-dimensional scans in black and white of the lunar surface of Rainbow Bay and the promontory Laplace made by Chang’er 2.

First video of the Moon surface taken by Chinese probe Chang’er 2.

Rainbow Bay on the Moon

December 2013. China’s first moon rover was launched in December 2013 as part of China’s Chang’e 3 moon mission, which also delivered a stationary lander to the lunar surface.

In January 2016, China released a bunch of HD images of the Chang-e 2 2013 mission.

Yutu Moon rover
Yutu Moon rover – The Science and Application Center for Moon and Deepspace Exploration / Emily Lakdawalla
Yutu (玉兔; “Jade Rabbit”) is an unmanned lunar rover that formed part of the Chinese Chang’e 3 mission to the Moon.
Chang'e 3 lander panorama
Chang’e 3 lander panorama
Yutu's wheels
Tracks in the regolith. Yutu’s wheels carved curved tracks in the lunar soil. – Courtesy The Science and Application Center for Moon and Deepspace Exploration / Emily Lakdawalla
Yutu river view of pyramid rock (LONG YAN). This is a mosaic of six images captured by the Yutu rover on January 13, 2014, after it had driven southwest of the lander to visit a large block of impact ejecta that the team named Long Yan (Pyramid Rock). – Courtesy The Science and Application Center for Moon and Deepspace Exploration / Emily Lakdawalla
Chang'e 3 lander in the distance
Chang’e 3 lander in the distance
Yutu moon rover on the road
Yutu moon rover on the road

In August 2016, Yutu rover ceased operations.

China is expected to launch its fifth lunar probe, Chang’e-5, in 2017 to send back a moon rock sample to earth. A lunar landing probe, lunar surface patrol device, and other equipment would be carried by Chang’e-5, said Ye Peijian, chief designer of Chang’e-1, the country’s first moon probe, and chief commander of the Chang’e-2 and Chang’e-3 missions.

April 2017. It was revealed that China is talking with the European Space Agency about collaborating on a human settlement on the moon.

June 2017. China prepares its first manned mission to the moon.

Project 921-2, Tiangong program

Tiangong (天宫; Heavenly Palace) is a space station program of the People’s Republic of China, intending to create a third-generation space station, comparable to Mir. As of January 2013, China moved forward on a large multiphase construction program that will lead to a large space station around 2020.

China launched its first space laboratory, Tiangong 1, on September 29, 2011.

Following Tiangong 1, a more advanced space laboratory complete with cargo ship, dubbed Tiangong 2, was launched on September 15, 2016.

The project will culminate with a large orbital station, which will consist of a 20-ton core module, 2 smaller research modules, and cargo transport craftIt will support three astronauts for long-term habitation and was scheduled to be completed by 2020 just as the International Space Station was at that time scheduled to be retired, but this has since slipped to 2022.

A second space lab, Tiangong 2, launched on 15 September 2016, 22:04:09.

Tiangong 2, Chinese space laboratory
Tiangong 2, Chinese space laboratory

The Tiangong 2 brings with it the POLAR gamma ray burst detector, a space-Earth quantum key distribution and laser communications experiment to be used in conjunction with the Mozi ‘Quantum Science Satellite’, a liquid bridge thermocapillary convection experiment and a space material experiment.

Tiangong 2 stages
Approaching the Tiangong 2 space laboratory

October 2016. China launched Shenzhou XI manned spacecraft to Chinese Space Laboratory

Shenzhou XI launch
Chinese Space Laboratory

As of 2013, ten Chinese nationals (Taikonauts) have traveled in space (alphabetical order): Fei Junlong (费俊龙), Jing Haipeng (景海鹏), Liu Boming (刘伯明), Liu Wang (刘旺), Liu Yang (刘洋), Nie Haisheng (聂海胜), Yang Liwei (杨利伟), Zhai Zhigang (翟志刚)

Sources (text and images):,,,,,,,

Topics: moon landing,space rocket,space missions,Chinese space missions,Chinese communication satellite,Chinese space station,China space,space experiments,Chinese space news,chinese space program pictures,china moon landing pictures,moon rover pictures from earth,yutu rover images, chinese space program images, first Chinese female astrounat, chinese space station images, international space station, space pictures,space technology

Post Author


Silk Road hub or tax haven? China’s new border trade zone may be less than it seems

China is the second largest investing country


Enjoyed this post? Never miss out on future posts by following us

4 thoughts on “Chinese Space Program: a Photographic History”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.