Twenty years after first crewed mission, China looks to lofty goals

by Adrian Beil

On Oct. 15, 2003, a Chang Zheng 2F lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center (JSLC) in the Gobi Desert in China’s Gansu province. On top of the rocket was the Shenzhou-5 spacecraft carrying astronaut Yang Liwei. This mission had a special significance, as it was the beginning of the Chinese crewed space program and the first time China launched a human into space.

Since this day, 20 years have passed, in which China’s ambitions to be a player in the global space race only grew even more, with space stations launched, missions sent to Mars, and a crewed lunar program on the horizon. 

The flight of Yang Liwei

After China’s first try to get a human into space did not succeed and was canceled due to lack of funding in the 1980s, the next attempt, “Project 921,” was the one that finally put China next to the US and Soviet Union as independent human flying space nations. 

The plan was simple, at least in wording. First, launch a crewed spaceship to build up human space capabilities. Second, launch a space laboratory tasked with making technological breakthroughs. Third, establish a true space station. The flight of Yang Liwei could be seen as completing the first stage of Project 921.

Yang Liwei inside Shenzhou-5. (Credit: CASC)

Yang Liwei was born the son of a teacher and an accountant in Suizhong County, Huludao, Liaoning. He enlisted for the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) and later became part of the Air Force Second Flight Academy, where he graduated in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree. His 1,350 hours of flight time as a fighter pilot were one of the main reasons he became part of the space training program.

As important as it was, the flight was one of the most silent milestones ever. Neither the flight nor reentry was televised, probably due to fears of broadcasting a failure. In addition, only an outline of the mission was publicized prior to the flight. Only after its successful touchdown was the mission celebrated on Chinese national television.

This made China only the third nation on the planet to have an independent human spaceflight program after the United States and the Soviet Union. Besides some vibrations during the rocket’s first stage flight, the mission went as planned, with success on all expected parameters. 

This trend is seemingly continuing, as many Chinese spaceflight missions succeed on the first attempt, and the nation is showing a lot of commitment to providing the necessary resources for a space program.

The astronauts of Shenzhou-16, the most recent Chinese crewed mission. (Credit: CASC)

However, China’s current human space program is not without its faults. The approach uses older, hypergolic propellant rockets, which are toxic to humans and can harm the environment. In addition, the rocket stages have infamously fallen on inhabited areas, leading to property damage or even the destruction of homes. This fact combined with the toxic propellants has led to controversy.

Since the first mission, eleven more Shenzhou flights have taken place, with the next one planned for later this month. While initially there were several years between some flights, the program has resulted in continuous occupation of the Tiangong Space Station since 2021, where crews rotate between their missions, similar to how it is done on the International Space Station. 


Before today’s Tiangong Space Station, China had launched two other space stations that carried similar names. Tiangong-1, launched in September 2011, was the first testbed to prepare for bigger stations. It allowed China to practice rendezvous and docking and served as a testing ground for the first Chinese experiments conducted onboard a station.

Its successor, Tiangong-2, was launched in September 2016 and deorbited in July 2019. It was designed as a second test station, which allowed for further scientific and technical experiments on topics such as weightlessness, tests on human behavior in space, and other related technologies.

Render of the Tiangong Station in space, with only the Tianhe core module launched. (Credit: Shujianyang)

Both completed their goals and, with this, fulfilled the second part of the Project 921 plan.

This resulted in the large Tiangong Space Station — “Sky Palace” in English — beginning assembly in April 2021 with the launch of its Tianhe core module. This was the beginning of the first Chinese modular space station, which would allow for a constant crew in orbit, long-term research, and even bigger endeavors such as installing a space telescope at the station in the near future.

The station’s current inhabitants are the crew of the Shenzhou-16 mission, consisting of commander Jing Haipeng and his team of flight engineer Zhu Yangzhu and the first Chinese civilian in space, Gui Haichao. Their mission is almost coming to an end, with Shenzhou-17 launching soon to make sure that the station is constantly crewed — an achievement that took China several years but now allows for constant research on the station. With Tiangong now operational, the final step of the Project 921 plan has been realized.

The massive Chang Zheng 5, which in the past has been the spark of international discussion. (Credit: CASC)

Of course, the construction of this station also showcased an international conflict between China and the rest of the space world, as its launch of the more extensive space modules resulted in massive Chang Zheng 5B rocket cores uncontrollably coming down on Earth and potentially endangering the public. Social media poked fun at these events with things such as bingo cards, while other agencies and astronomers tried to accurately predict the final drop zone of the giant rocket stages. These events, combined with the earlier uncontrolled reentry of Tiangong-1 and the dropping of other rocket stages on inhabited areas, have gained China a negative spotlight throughout the space world.

Chang Zheng 5B, China’s space station module-launching rocket, is still expected to fly more, and every time it does, it will create potential tensions between China and other space nations such as the US. China so far has yet to show an intention to correct this problem.

China to the Moon

Besides the nation’s massive plans to expand its solar system and planetary research, it has two other big goals for the next few years: conduct more research on the Tiangong Space Station and get Chinese boots on the Moon. 

The former has a clear path. Xuntian, the space telescope under construction in China right now, will prepare to ride to space in the upcoming years and orbit nearby, and sometimes docked to, the Tiangong station to allow further usage of the human hands on the station for maintenance and development. This will be a new way to utilize humans in space and to expand this newly achieved capability to conduct research and science.

A model of China’s massive Chang Zheng 9 rocket. (Credit: Shujianyang)

The path to the Moon is much more complex. China will need new, giant rockets, a lander, and other critical technology to copy a mission just like Apollo of the United States. Chang Zheng 10, the massive triple-core rocket similar in appearance and function to Falcon Heavy, is planned to clear the path to the Moon. The rocket has yet to fly and will not for several years. Further down the line, China wants to go even bigger with a rocket that resembles SpaceX’s currently-in-development Starship, Chang Zheng 9. CZ-9 will be a super-heavy lift reusable rocket that will allow extremely large payloads to be carried to low Earth orbit and beyond. 

Its ambitions have a few more years of work ahead, as the crewed lunar landing is planned in the 2030s. The mission also requires more development than the more complete Artemis program. Still, down the line, China has shown resources and ambition to close the gap to the Western space programs as fast as possible, with its own partially reckless methods.

But of course, these reckless methods have seen China become isolated on the stage of spacefaring nations. While the US builds international partnerships for its Artemis program, China is left with the collapsing space program of Russia, whose contribution to the joint lunar efforts has yet to become apparent.

(Lead image: Flight of Shenzhou 1. Credit: CASC)

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