• Aeryn Avilla

Hidden Histories: Shuguang 1 and the Early Chinese Space Program

Updated: Jul 8

Shuguang-1, also known as Project 714, was the first proposed crewed spacecraft of the People's Republic of China. The project lasted from the late 1960s to the early 1970s and consisted of a two-person spacecraft similar to the American Gemini. The first manned flight was to launch in 1973. Project 714 was cancelled on May 13, 1972 due to financial and political problems with very little hardware having been constructed.


Sketch of Shuguang-1's flight controls (China Space Report)


The modern Chinese space program, the China National Space Administration (CNSA), has its roots in the 1950s when the country began its ballistic missile program in response to perceived American threats. However, it was not established until the 1990s and therefore did not have any connection with Shuguang. There were various proposals for crewed spacecraft predating Shuguang-1 that would have begun with initial sub-orbital flights and test flights with animals. However, shortly after these plans were made in 1966, several leading scientists of the project were condemned during the Cultural Revolution. As the Space Race between the US and USSR reached its peak, Chinese leaders realized they were in direct ideological conflict with the revisionist beliefs of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and were therefore competing with him and his party for leadership of the communist world. They were determined not to give up outer space to the Soviet Union and United States, the only two world superpowers.


Yang Liwei, the first Chinese taikonaut in 2003 (CNSA)

On July 14, 1967, Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai decided to start China's own official space program. The name Shuguang-1 was given the following January. "Shuguang" is Mandarin for "dawn". China's Space Medical Institute was founded on April 1, 1968 and was responsible for space medicine research. The Central Military Commission, the military branch of the national government, ordered the selection of astronauts among the People's Liberation Army Air Force pilots. Requirements for the taikonauts were as follows: weight between 121 and 154 pounds (55 to 70 kg), height between approximately 5'2" and 5'7" (1.59 and 1.74 m), anywhere from 24 to 38 years old, and at least 300 hours of flight time. By the end of 1969, two months of selection resulted in 215 primary candidates out of the 1,918 pilots who were initially chosen. Similar to the astronaut and cosmonaut selections, the second phase of screening consisted of psychological, physiological, and general medical examinations as well as an evaluation of flying techniques. The 215 were narrowed down to 88. The biggest final determining factor was the pilots' dedication to Chinese revolutionary political ideas. 19 pilots were chosen as the first taikonauts on March 15, 1971 and were to begin training in November.


As taikonaut selection was taking place, Wang Xiji's 8th Academy team drew up concepts for one, two, three, and five-manned spacecraft. According to China Space Report, the original one-man capsule was rejected because it glorified "individual heroism", which was unwelcome by the political leadership. In April 1971, it was decided at a conference the spacecraft should follow the design of NASA's Gemini spacecraft and was given the designation Project 714 after the year ('71) and month (4) of this commitment. Shuguang was heavily influenced by Gemini but was lighter and smaller so it could launch atop the CZ-2A rocket, now known as the Long March 2A. It had a height of 20 feet (6.1 m), a maximum payload of 7,054.8 pounds (3,200 kg), and could spend eight days in space. Like Gemini, it would have consisted of two modules— a habitable crew module in the front and a service module in the back. The crew module also served as the reentry capsule and consisted of a pressurized crew compartment, two ejection seats, and a control panel in front of an equipment compartment containing flight and radio instruments, four retrorockets, and the parachute. The service module housed the orientation engines, propellant tanks, and other pieces of hardware like antennae. Shuguang's crew module would have separated from the service module for reentry and splashed down in the ocean, also similar to Gemini. It had no soft-landing system so it could not land on the ground like Soviet spacecraft.


Cutaway of NASA's Gemini spacecraft showing the interior of the crew and service modules

Cutaway of NASA's Gemini spacecraft (NASA)


Construction of a new space center at Xichang in the Sichuan province, and far from the Soviet Union border, was set to begin but not completed until a decade later— the facility did not become operational until 1984. Shuguang-1 was expected to launch from Launch Complex 1 in 1973 but the pad was never completed. Instead, a launch viewing platform for officials was built where the site would have been. The Xichang Satellite Launch Center, also known as the Xichang Space Center, only launches unmanned rockets; manned Shenzouh missions [1] launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.


Project 714 was ultimately cancelled as a result of the project's secrecy and low priority within the Chinese government. The event that instigated the project's downfall took place on September 13, 1971 when Defense Minister Lin Biao fled the country and died in a plane crash in Mongolia on his way to the Soviet Union. This followed a supposed unsuccessful coup to overthrow Chairman Mao. Afterwards, members of the project that supported Biao were detained for interrogation for almost a year, halting the manned space program. In the following months, taikonauts were released from the project and returned back to their units. On May 13, 1972, the last staff member attached to Project 714 went back to his unit and the project was officially cancelled. During the late 1970s and '80s official announcements were made that China's manned space program was continuing but no significant work was done and these reports were only propaganda.


Mid-century Chinese space propaganda poster (chineseposters.net)


The program, despite meager funding, saw the development of a number of technologies and resources necessary for the Shenzouh program, including recoverable Fanhui Shi Weixing-class [2] space capsules, EVA spacesuits, space food, space tracking stations, a taikonaut selection process, and training facilities. China would not fly its first taikonaut until 2003 when Yang Liwei flew on Shenzhou 5. CNSA is now constructing its Tiangong Space Station and the station's core module, the Tianhe ("Harmony of the Heavens"), was launched into orbit on April 29, 2021. Shenzou 12 launched to the station on June 17, 2021.



Author's note: I would like to apologize for the lack of pictures— Shuguang's existence was not made known in the West until the 2000s and is still shrouded in secrecy. Photos involving the spacecraft, everything from mock-builds to simple sketches, are next to impossible to find. Hopefully in the coming years more information on Shuguang is released. Thanks for reading and be sure to like, share, and check out my other posts!



[1] Shenzhou was the crewed spacecraft of Project 921 (later named the Shenzhou Program) that began in 1992. It derives from the Russian Soyuz and flew seven crewed missions from 2003 to 2021.

[2] Fanhui Shi Weixing was the name of a class of Chinese recoverable reconnaissance satellites that were used from June 1969 to September 2006.



Bibliography

  • “China's Early Human Spaceflight Programme.” China Space Report, 9 Oct. 2016, chinaspacereport.wordpress.com/programmes/project714/#prettyPhoto.

  • Wade, Mark. Shuguang 1, www.astronautix.com/s/shuguang1.html.

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