Project 921 | Space | Air & Space Magazine

Project 921

Russia and the United States have held the inside tracks in the space race. In the stretch, here comes China.

Air & Space Magazine | Subscribe

The heart of China’s ambition for a high-tech future lies on the north side of Beijing’s Haidian district, near the leafy campuses of Peking and Tsinghua Universities. Clustered around those elite schools and a flock of smaller colleges are dozens of startup companies working in the hot fields of information technology and genetics. The communist government has optimistically dubbed the crowded district China’s Silicon Valley.

To the south, hidden behind high walls and armed guards, are government research centers and the laboratories of the People’s Liberation Army. And if foreign experts are right, somewhere in this military-run section of Haidian, a group of fighter pilots is training to fulfill China’s most audacious goal—launching an astronaut into space.

The Chinese astronauts-in-training, their identities still secret, are mystery figures at the center of the country’s decade-long push to become the third nation to send its own people into orbit. The state press says astronauts should carry China’s gold-starred red flag into space by 2005, and some Western analysts think it could happen as early as next year. But even though early tests of a three-person spacecraft have been successful, the government has told its citizens and the world little about its pursuit of this expensive, cold-war-style propaganda prize. The secretive Chinese military dominates the program, and, fearing the political embarrassment that could come with setbacks, the government stays mum.

“We don’t really know much,” says He Shuzhang, retired director of the Aerospace Museum at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Haidian, one of the country’s top rocketry schools. The astronaut training center is thought to be near the museum where He—pronounced “Huh”—still helps out. When asked if he knows exactly where, he shakes his head. But despite the shortage of information, “ordinary Chinese care a lot about this and have high hopes,” he said. “They feel great pride.”

China has long held ambitions for a place in space. The country sent up its first satellite in 1970, which broadcast a tinny version of the communist Chinese anthem, “The East Is Red.” Even before then, when Americans and Soviets were racing each other to the moon in the mid-1960s, the Chinese began working on plans to enter the derby with a one-man capsule named Shuguang, or Dawn. The project got as far as selecting 19 astronaut candidates in 1971, with an eye toward a first flight two years later. But coming as it did during the political upheaval of the 1966–1976 Cultural Revolution, when key engineers and scientists were being denounced and ousted from their positions, the effort was likely doomed from the start. That first cadre of astronauts was disbanded within a year, and the project was finally scrapped in 1980.

Chinese interest in human spaceflight simmered for another decade or so, but only simmered. Former U.S. astronaut Gordon Fullerton recalls a goodwill visit to China following his shuttle flight, STS-3, in 1982. His hosts were polite, but very guarded about whatever plans—past or future—they had to build up an astronaut corps. “That was super-secret,” he recalls. “They weren’t saying anything.” Fullerton and fellow STS-3 astronaut Jack Lousma were treated to lab visits, where they saw, among other things, a centrifuge (the Chinese were disappointed to learn that U.S. shuttle astronauts no longer used them for training). But “there wasn’t anything close to a computer,” says Fullerton. And beyond a trip to a rocket factory and a space medicine institute, the American visitors saw little evidence that the Chinese were planning to get into the spaceflight business.

When political stability returned to China in the 1990s, along with economic growth, the old dream was resurrected. The current bid to send astronauts into orbit is called Project 921: “92” for the year it began and “1” designating it as the first major, long-term national project begun that year.

Much has changed since the aborted Shuguang program of the 1970s. China now does a thriving business firing satellites into orbit for foreign customers aboard its Long March rockets. Western analysts say the country’s rocketry skills are among its strongest military technologies. Though the average citizen makes less than $700 a year and the country faces crushing demands for money to overhaul state industry and fund social programs, the government appears ready to spend what it takes not just to achieve manned spaceflight but to sustain it.

“This is a matter of national pride,” observes Joseph Cheng, director of the Contemporary China Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong. “We were the most civilized country centuries ago, and we must recapture this glory.” Space travel is a powerful international status symbol, says Cheng, a way of demonstrating that China offers an alternative to American leadership. “China is a major power, and has to be respected as a major power.” He chuckles as he quotes a maxim from communist party founder Mao Zedong: “Even if we don’t have trousers, we still want the atom bomb.”

Former museum director He, a quiet, slender, 72-year-old man with a thick shock of salt-and-pepper hair, recalls the patriotic stirrings he felt in July 1969 on hearing that an American had set foot on the moon. China, the country that invented rocketry, was then in the grip of the Cultural Revolution, terrorized by violent, radical gangs that were incited by Mao. The economy was collapsing. Scientists were harassed for past contacts with foreign researchers. Still, says He, “I thought right then, if the Soviets had sent someone into space, and the Americans did it, then we certainly would do it.”

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus