Project 921

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

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.”

With that goal now clearly in sight, a sketchy picture of Beijing’s astronauts—called yuhangyuans, which means, roughly, “one who goes into space”—is slowly emerging from the shadows of official secrecy. The government won’t allow any of the flashy publicity that turned NASA’s Mercury astronauts into celebrities even before they flew. The China State Manned Aerospace Office in Beijing declined even to accept a written request for information for this article. But the authorities have stopped short of a total, Soviet-style information blackout. In a sign of growing official confidence, the state-controlled press has been divulging more details about the project since the third successful test of Shenzhou (pronounced “shun jo”), the astronauts’ bowl-shaped reentry capsule.

In that test, conducted last March, Shenzhou orbited Earth 108 times, then touched down in the grasslands of inner Mongolia. Afterward, state television showed jubilant mission control technicians in red jumpsuits leaping in the air and cheering as military officials nodded approvingly. The government proclaimed the seven-day test flight a success and said the reentry capsule, which had carried sensor-equipped, spacesuited mannequins into orbit, was “technically suitable for astronauts.” Another section of the spacecraft remained aloft; ground controllers have been using it to practice remote-controlled orbital maneuvering.

The yuhangyuans, picked from among some 2,000 military pilots in the People’s Liberation Army, are all around 30 years old, according to stories in the state-controlled press, which are useful, if unverifiable, sources of technical information. The official Xinhua News Agency has given the number of astronauts as 12, while other reports put the number at 14, perhaps counting trainer astronauts as well. In 1996, China paid Russia to put two pilots through its Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City on the outskirts of Moscow. It is unclear whether the two men—identified in Western reports as Li Qinglong and Wu Zi—were preparing for a Shenzhou flight themselves, or whether their role has been limited to training other Chinese astronauts back home. Either way, China is unlikely to continue relying on Russian help in this area. Most Western analysts agree with Phillip Clark, an independent aerospace consultant based in England, that Beijing is intent on building up its own space school. Clark’s specialty is Russia, but he has followed the China space program since the 1970s, in part for the challenge—“It’s too easy to get information on other countries,” he says.

Judging by the press accounts, Chinese trainers followed Russian tradition in selecting diminutive fliers to fit inside a cramped capsule. The first candidates average five-foot-seven and 110 pounds, small by the standards of today’s well-nourished Chinese youth. The state press says the government will announce their names after the fourth test flight, suggesting that Shenzhou 5 might be the first to carry a crew. By contrast, when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space in 1961, Moscow didn’t reveal his identity until he was safely in orbit. And when program officials selected Gagarin for the flight, they withheld that information from him until a few days before launch. The Chinese will follow that practice, according to one Chinese report.

In an article last April, the weekly newspaper China Space News revealed new details about the yuhangyuans’ training. Members of the corps live Monday to Friday in a heavily guarded building at an “aerospace city” in Beijing. “Any outsiders who try to peek in or take pictures are politely asked to leave,” the report said. State newspapers have begun calling the building the Red Chamber. On weekends, according to China Space News, the astronauts return to their families, who live in ordinary apartments in the city. Many of the pilots’ wives work in the same facility, said the newspaper, and “as wives of astronauts, have a strong sense of secrecy.”

Additional glimpses of the program have come from other state media. An account last year in the Guangzhou Daily mentioned a four-story windowless building on Beijing’s west side that held a mockup of the Shenzhou reentry capsule. The story described white-robed technicians watching as a trainee in an orange spacesuit climbed into the capsule simulator.

The astronauts practice emergency launch pad escapes at the launch site in the Gobi Desert, according to the state newspaper Labor News. The base is near the remote northwest town of Jiuquan, a former oasis stop for camel trains on the ancient Silk Road. (China has two other launch sites, which so far have been used only for launching satellites—at Taiyuan in the central province of Shanxi and at Xichang in the southwest province of Sichuan.)

The program has a distinctly Chinese identity. The astronauts will conduct inflight experiments in traditional herbal medicine, according to capsule designer Su Shuangning, who gave a rare interview last April to the People’s Liberation Army Daily. The space cuisine will likewise have a native flavor. A research lab in Shanghai has developed a 21-meal menu, according to China Space News, whose reporter saw dozens of space-bound dishes at the Beijing training center—light on fish, meat, and bread and heavy on curried rice, shellfish, vegetables, and other dishes prepared by adding hot water. The diet will also include dried fruit. And “since Chinese love to drink tea, besides orange juice, there is iced tea and green tea,” the newspaper said.

Because the identities of the astronauts and engineers are largely unknown, the most visible figure in China’s nascent space program has been President Jiang Zemin. The 76-year-old leader, who also heads the Chinese communist party, is expected to start giving up his formal posts over the next two years, and is using the space program to polish his image as a leader who modernized China. The former engineer and Shanghai mayor, a surprise pick in 1989 to head the communist party after that year’s political upheaval, prides himself on having helped to spread the Internet and other modern technology to the masses. He was on hand at Jiuquan on March 25 for the third Shenzhou launch. State television devoted half of its 30-minute nationwide evening news that day to the event—focusing not on the flight itself but on Jiang. Dressed in a green military-style uniform, he was shown congratulating control room technicians and speaking against a backdrop of fireworks bursting over the Tiananmen Gate in central Beijing.

Under Jiang, the government has largely cast off leftist ideology in promoting economic reform. Instead, it appeals to Chinese cultural pride by advancing projects such as Beijing’s campaign to host the 2008 Olympics. When that bid proved successful, millions of people poured into the streets of the capital in spontaneous nighttime celebration, waving flags, singing the national anthem, and cheering themselves hoarse. The space program fits this nationalistic role perfectly. In contrast to revolution-era names—Long March rockets, East Is Red satellites—the more poetic Shenzhou——“Sacred Vessel”—harkens back to the glory days of classical China.

One day last July, I set out looking for the public face of China’s new space program. But I ended up disappointed, caught between Beijing’s desire to brag about its achievements and the military-inspired secrecy that the communist system regards as a necessary part of its armor. At the Aerospace Museum, former director He and the current director, Han Guoju, were gracious and welcoming. Their exhibits, housed in two concrete-floor halls the size of small aircraft hangars, include a Chinese fighter jet and models of airplanes made by the country’s civilian industry. Ultralight aircraft hang from the high ceiling. In one corner is a head-high scale model of a Shenzhou capsule and photos of Long March rockets blasting off. But that’s all. “Our museum is very simple,” said Han, who recommended that I visit the bigger China Aerospace Museum, on the southwest outskirts of Beijing.

I got directions from a receptionist over the phone, but when I arrived, I found that the museum is inside the walled compound of the state-run Launch Vehicle Research Institute. A polite young guard with an AK-47 rifle told me the public isn’t allowed through the front gate. I called back the woman in the museum office, who belatedly explained why I’d never heard of the museum—it was baomi—secret. Entry by a foreigner requires permission from the office of the institute director. I waited an hour but was finally told that I’d been refused.

As I left, I saw the clash between China’s high-tech hopes and low-tech reality: On the street outside of the building, farmers drove horse-drawn wagons filled with vegetables to street markets.

The cost for this huge but still-developing nation to create a space program from scratch—the state press says it now involves some 3,000 government agencies and companies—is a mystery. Foreign estimates range into the billions of dollars. But one Western diplomat in Beijing who follows the program says the total could be less than $1 billion, or half of what NASA paid to build a single space shuttle orbiter. “Wages for engineers and other experts are very low,” says the diplomat, who spoke on condition that he not be identified. “And materials and techniques that the Soviets and Americans had to spend a lot of money to develop in the 1950s and ’60s are common knowledge.”

Chinese media also emphasize the project’s frugality. A report on the Web site of the communist newspaper People’s Daily said designers of the rocket assembly building at Jiuquan—whose 240-foot-high front doors weigh 350 tons—saved some 40 million yuan (about $5 million) by constructing it of concrete rather than the costlier steel used by Russia and the United States. Still, a few hundred million dollars spent on one building is equivalent to a full year’s budget for a Chinese province—money used for roads, schools, and health care in a country where hundreds of millions of people live in poverty.

Beijing cut some corners by buying Russian know-how, and is believed to have purchased a Soyuz capsule, docking system, and spacesuit to study. Clark, the British expert, says China might also buy, as another study aid, a life support system designed for Russia’s former Mir space station. The United States, on the other hand, has provided no technical help. Washington accuses Chinese companies of exporting rocket technology to Iran and Pakistan and worries that Beijing’s own rapidly improving missile arsenal could threaten Taiwan. So, until the U.S. Department of State says different, NASA will likely keep a cool distance. Lynn Cline, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for external relations and an experienced diplomat, says that Chinese officials occasionally ask her at international meetings what it would take to join the International Space Station project. But they’ve made no formal request, and cooperation remains limited. NASA is scheduled to carry a Chinese student experiment into orbit on the space shuttle this fall, and the two countries have discussed joint projects in Earth science and other non-controversial fields.

Even so, Chinese researchers have had access to U.S. expertise through technical conferences—more access, in fact, “than makes a lot of people in the West comfortable,” according to Charles Vick, chief of the Space Policy Division of the Federation of American Scientists. There has been more of a clamp-down since September 11, he says. “Government buildings such as NASA are now off-limits,” and U.S. conferences are imposing restrictions. “They’re being turned away and told, flatly, ‘No.’ ”

Chinese space officials are proud of their mostly homegrown program. “Our late start doesn’t necessarily mean we are developing slowly,” said capsule designer Su in his April newspaper interview. “We can learn from the experience of others and take shortcuts.” In fact, China’s first space hardware will be far more sophisticated than the capsules launched by the Soviets and Americans in the early 1960s. The 8.4-ton Shenzhou is slightly bigger than the Russian Soyuz vehicle on which it was modeled. Photos of Shenzhou 3 on the launch pad show improvements added by Chinese designers, including steering rockets, presumably to be used for docking with a space station that China also plans to launch sometime in the next decade.

News reports have said that the first piloted Shenzhou flight will carry two or three astronauts, whereas the Americans and Soviets started out with tiny, one-seat capsules. Still, China is proceeding cautiously, lacking a rival to race against and constrained by tight budgets and safety worries. The government has never disclosed a schedule for launches. “These designers are going to be very conservative about their approach because you’re dealing with human life here, and the prestige of a nation,” says Vick. Clark says that an executive of China’s commercial satellite launching company once told him that the test program “can’t afford a failure.”

Foreign analysts think that Chinese designers got a jarring reminder of the difficulties of human spaceflight after the second Shenzhou test, conducted in January 2001. They say something went wrong on reentry—possibly a partial failure of parachute equipment—and the capsule may have slammed down into the Inner Mongolian steppe. In contrast to the triumphant fanfare surrounding Shenzhou 3, not a single photograph of the capsule was released after the second test flight. “I’m not saying it was destroyed, but it was not something a human being would like to endure,” says Vick.

Shenzhou 3 also was delayed on the pad. Vick has seen Western satellite images showing the rocket on the launch pad in August 2001, before it was removed for what he believes were modifications to both the booster and the capsule. The modifications suggest that the Chinese may be struggling to master what engineers refer to as systems integration, or getting all the elements of a space program—from rockets to computers to the four tracking ships stationed at listening posts around the globe—working together smoothly.

Assuming Chinese astronauts make it into orbit sometime in the next couple of years, what then? In their rare public comments, Chinese researchers have talked about wanting to mine the moon and explore Mars—aspirations that the state press stresses don’t have the backing of the government. But China clearly wants to go beyond just rocketing astronauts into orbit and bringing them home again. Clark points out that the early Shenzhou tests have already demonstrated that the capsules can reach orbits ideal for the planned space station. They pass over their launch base roughly every two days, which would offer frequent opportunities to send up supplies or switch crews. A second launch pad is under construction at Jiuquan, and that would allow two rockets to be launched within a short interval, carrying capsules to rendezvous with each other in orbit, dock with the station, or perhaps be joined in orbit in preparation for a lunar mission.

Outside observers aren’t certain how far China’s ambitions for a moon program have advanced—whether it’s just a vague notion or a more detailed plan with a timetable. But the idea has a certain logic. “The Russians can’t go to the moon [for lack of funds]; the Americans don’t have the political will to go to the moon,” Clark says. “Really, the Chinese are the only people who could realistically be going to the moon in the next 20 years.”

Visitors to the Expo 2000 technology fair in Hannover, Germany, in October 2000 were intrigued by the centerpiece of the Chinese pavilion, a diorama showing astronaut mannequins driving a rover across the lunar surface, having just planted the flag of the People’s Republic of China. Coming just 11 months after Shenzhou 1 completed its flawless first flight, the scene didn’t look all that farfetched.

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