Chronology of Chinese Space Exploration
"1059 Missile" (1960)
The first Chinese Earth-orbiting satellite Dongfenghong 1 (1970)
The first geostationary communications satellite (1984)
The first human space flight mission Shenzhou 5 (2003)
The first extra-vehicular activity (2008)
The first space station visit mission Shenzhou 9 (2012)
China’s space programme was born in the mid-1950s, when the Chinese military began to develop missile and nuclear weapons under the assistance of the Soviet Union. Following the success of the Soviet Union and the United States in launching their first artificial satellites, the Chinese leadership announced in 1958 that the country would develop its own space programme.
Despite the economic hardship and political turmoil, China continued with its missile and space programme in the 1960s. The ballistic missiles were successfully tested and sounding rockets carrying small animals were launched for suborbital flights. A new launch site was constructed in northwest China. The programme to launch China’s first artificial Earth satellite (Project 651) was initiated in 1965. China was about to enter its space age.
The 1970s saw the beginning of China’s space age, marked with the launch of the country’s first artificial Earth-orbiting satellite Dongfanghong 1 in 1970. This was followed by a range of space projects, including the recoverable satellite (FSW) and a human space flight programme (Project 714). However, these ambitious plans were soon faced with fresh political turmoil and financial difficulties.
China gradually became an established space power in the 1980s by introducing a series of remote-sensing, telecommunications, meteorology, and scientific satellites. Two new space launch centres in Taiyuan and Xichang became operational. New models of launch vehicles were commissioned for launching satellites to higher orbits. Scientists began to study the feasibility of a manned space station in the high-tech development initiative known as Programme 863.
The 1990s witnessed both achievements and setbacks in the Chinese space programme. The Chinese space industry successfully broke into the international commercial satellite launch market, but its reputation was seriously damaged by a series of high-profile launch failures that followed.
China’s space programme saw a great leap forward in the 2000s, thank to the country's booming economy. The country became the third in the world to posses the ability to send human into space independently in 2003, when its first astronaut flew in orbit onboard Shenzhou 5 space capsule. Two more manned missions were conducted in 2005 and 2008, which saw Chinese astronauts staying in orbit for multiple days and conducting EVA. In 2007, Chang'e 1 probe orbited the Moon for the first time.
China’s space programme entered a period of intensive launches in 2010. A total of 15 launches were conducted, which had tied the number of U.S. space launches of that year. The highlight of this year’s missions was the launch of the second lunar orbiting probe Chang’e 2, which was sent to capture high-definition images of the lunar surface to help select a suitable landing spot for the subsequent robotic landing mission.
2011 had been another successful year for the Chinese space programme, with a total of 19 launches, including an experimental space laboratory module and a Shenzhou capsule for an unmanned redizenvous and docking mission. For the first time China had exceeded the United States in the number of launches. With NASA losing its last space shuttle in July, China became one of the only two nations in the world capable of sending human into space.
2012 was yet another highly productive year for the Chinese space programme, with 19 launches conducted, sending 28 spacecraft into orbit. The highlight of the year was no doubt the Shenzhou 9 human space flight mission, which saw three Chinese astronauts, including the country’s first female astronaut, visiting the Tiangong 1 space laboratory in low Earth orbit and spending 10 days onboard the station.
In 2013, China is planning to launch nearly 20 spacecraft. The two most important missions are the Shenzhou 10 human space flight mission scheduled in summer, and the Chang’e 3 unmanned lunar landing mission scheduled later this year. It is understood that the Shenzhou 10 mission will have a crew of three, which may include a female astronaut.