By Hu Yinan
October 24, 2007
China’s space ambitions are at least six centuries old.
It all began when Wan Hu, an official of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), became the earliest documented pioneer of rocket flight in both China and the world.
One day in the early 16th century, in an ambitious attempt to fly to outer space, he bundled himself into a chair attached to 47 rockets while holding a large kite in each hand.
The final result was fatal. Wan died in an explosion of rockets.
It would take another 600 years until manned spaceflight became a reality for China.
A crater on the moon has been named after Wan, and today’s expected launch of China’s first lunar probe will herald in a new era for the country’s space ambitions to achieve a successful moon landing by 2012.
The initiative was announced in 2004, after China’s moon quest had been marred by decades of setbacks in its research and development (R&D).
China’s modern space ambitions originated from a report proposed by world-recognized scientist Qian Xuesen, or Tsien Hsue-Shen, eight months after his 1955 return to the mainland after spending two decades in the US.
A young visitor walks past a part of the Chinese space rocket displayed at Science and Technology Exhibition Center in Shanghai, China, on Wednesday October 24, 2007.
His report led to the establishment of a national research institute on rockets and missiles in 1956. Two years later, the State leadership under Chairman Mao allocated a then-massive 200 million yuan to the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) for the R&D of a homegrown satellite.
But three years of natural disasters (1958-61) and the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) that followed delayed the program. China launched a Soviet R-2 missile in 1960 and began work on Shuguang-1, a human spaceflight program in 1966. However, it was not until April 24, 1970 that China successfully launched its first satellite, the Dongfanghong-1 (DFH-1).
In 1971, 19 astronauts were selected for Shuguang-1, a two-man capsule to be launched before the end of 1973. Yet the project was eventually discontinued due to budget constraints. Mao gave the final say: “Pause manned spaceflight for a while. Take care of terrestrial affairs first; let space come later.”
That “while” proved to be a long and troublesome one, recalled Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of the lunar probe project, whose research began with 0.5 grams of a lunar sample in 1978.
Until then, Ouyang said lunar research in China had concentrated on studies of publicly available material from foreign explorations. And during his China visit in 1978, Zbigniew Brzezinski, then US President Jimmy Carter’s national security assistant, presented then Chinese chairman Hua Guofeng with 1 gram of lunar samples. Hua immediately forwarded the sample to research departments, which in turn gave it to Ouyang in the remote southwestern province of Guizhou.
There, about 100 other scientists gathered to investigate the sample, half of which was used for research. Then in March 1986, a letter from four senior scientists to the central government helped initiate the 863 National High-Technology R&D Program, a countermeasure to the “Star Wars” initiative of the US and EUREKA of Europe, among others.
Under the project, China reconvened feasibility studies of its homebred manned spaceflight program in the same year. Experts, however, did not reach an agreement on whether the country should proceed with a manned space program. The debate was so intense that it lasted another five years.
According to Ouyang, the origins of the Chang’e project date back to around 1992, when some scholars proposed to shoot an iron-made symbol onto the moon as a permanent Chinese print on the planet and in celebration of Hong Kong’s handover in 1997.
Then Premier Li Peng vetoed it on the grounds that the project was entirely driven by political motives, costly, and had little scientific research value, Ouyang said.
The groundwork of a genuinely viable Chang’e program began in 1994. Between then and Premier Wen Jiabao’s approval of the plan in January 2004, an entire decade was spent researching and lobbying.
The science community contributed significantly to this process, including an 863 proposal on the development of lunar probe technologies in 1997, the evaluation of lunar rover R&D plans in 1998, and a well-received seminar on lunar probe technologies organized by Tsinghua University two years later.
Official endorsement of the lunar exploration project was first illustrated with the publication of a State Council White Paper on China’s space activities in November 2000.
In the next year, a report headed by Ouyang on the scientific objectives of unmanned lunar probe, the first phase of China’s moon exploration project, was approved by the CAS. A final feasibility study was then initiated between 2001 and 2002.
“China started from scratch, and after three years of efforts has developed Chang’e I lunar orbiter and all its attendant projects,” Luan Enjie, chief commander of the program, said in an earlier interview. “The speed at which it has caught up with the necessary technology is impressive by anyone’s standards.”