China National Space Administration logo
Credit: China National Space Administration
The China National Space Administration (CNSA) is the national agency for China to co-ordinate its space activities. In contrast to most other space agencies worldwide, the organization is not involved with the International Space Station and, in fact, has a small space station of its own.
Since 2003, when Yang Liwei became the first Chinese national in space, CNSA has done several manned space launches. In 2013, a three-person crew aboard Shenzhou 9 made the first Chinese manned docking in space, attaching to the single-room station, Tiangong 1.
The agency has a moon rover and lunar lander in the works, on the robotic mission Chang'e 3, which is reportedly expected to blast off in late 2013. CNSA also carries out periodic launches by itself using its Chang Zheng (Long March) rocket series.
Path to the first taikonaut flight
Information about the Chinese space program is scant. Although CNSA has its own website, which is updated during missions, most of the updates about the agency's plans come through state-controlled Chinese media.
That public caution is likely a legacy of China's start in space after the country entered Communist control in 1949. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the roots of Chinese space began with officials such as Qian Xuesen, a co-founder of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Qian returned to China sometime after the takeover and in 1956, was appointed the first director of the Ministry of National Defense's Fifth Research Academy. The academy was tasked with overseeing ballistic missile development and beginning a space program, the encyclopedia added. Responsibility for space shifted among several government departments in the decades since.
CNSA itself formed in 1993, a year after China started its own human space program. It developed a spacecraft called Shenzhou, which rely on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft design but have been modernized by Chinese engineers.
China's first space traveler — called a taikonaut from the Mandarin word for space, tàikōng — was Yang Liwei. He entered space alone on Oct. 15, 2003, aboard Shenzhou 5. Yang's flight marked China as the third country ever to independently launch a human into space, after Russia and the United States began in 1961.
Other human spaceflight activities
Two years after Yang finished his flight, Shenzhou 6 launched with the first two-person Chinese crew. The mission reportedly was a test of how capable Shenzhou's life-support systems were, and also featured experiments and better food for the taikonauts.
The next mission, Shenzhou 7, featured the first Chinese spacewalk by Zhai Zhigang on Sept. 27, 2008. "I have been out of the hatch, I'm feeling good," Zhai said as he began his outside activities, according to the CCTV official Chinese television announcer's translation.
China selected seven new taikonauts in 2010, including two women. CNSA's one-room space station, Tiangong 1, launched in September 2011 and underwent two robotic dockings with the unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft that November. The crews of Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10 made their own manned dockings to Tiangong 1 in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
A bigger space station is likely in the works for 2020, given that Chinese officials have been publicizing that ambition since at least 2010. In past years, CNSA has also talked about perhaps doing a manned lunar mission some day.
Other Chinese space activities
China did a successful anti-satellite test on one of its own machines in 2007, drawing the concern of international space authorities as a debris cloud of hundreds of pieces spread into orbit. Five years later, the International Space Station had to take evasive maneuvers to put enough of a safe distance between it and one of the pieces from that test.
A five-year plan released by the Chinese government in 2011 projected numerous lunar missions, including robotic lunar landers and a sample-return mission. It also said its Beidou satellite-based positioning system, which was in limited service at the time, would have five satellites providing global service by 2020. The white paper also repeatedly mentioned space debris as a concern, most likely as a result of the international criticism levied after the anti-satellite test.
CNSA does regular launches with its Long March series of rockets, which send various types of satellites into space. A Long March 2C rocket had a malfunction in 2011 that also destroyed an experimental Chinese satellite. China is now developing a Long March 5 rocket that is intended to bolster the agency's work on the larger space station and possible lunar missions.
"The rockets in service cannot meet the demand from a future manned space station," Yuan Jie, deputy general manager of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), told the state-run Xinhua news agency in June 2013. "We need rockets with even larger carrying capacities."
In 2013, CNSA plans to deploy a robotic mission on the moon. Called Chang'e 3, it is intended to be the first Chinese mission to make a soft landing on the moon and to deploy a rover.