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:
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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|
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.
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.
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'|
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|
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|
|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.
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."
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.
|A Long March rocket launch|