Why China Doesn’t Have a Space Shuttle

The 1986 Challenger accident influenced the decision, but not in the way you might think

A Long March rocket lifts off with the Shenzhou-9 crew on board. ifeng.com

Reactions to China’s recent Shenzhou-9 mission, and to the Chinese space program in general, often seem like a Rorschach test, with Western observers variously seeing it as a threat or an opportunity, with purported goals ranging from setting up lunar bases to launching anti-satellite attacks.

There is general agreement, though, that Chinese space officials are not racing the United States as they recreate—with the number of steps greatly compressed—the 50-year technical evolution of human spaceflight. In just five missions, the Shenzhou program has gone from a Gagarin-esque solo flight to placing a small space station in orbit.

Gregory Kulacki, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, argues convincingly that China’s ambitions to orbit a space station date to the 1980s, and was primarily an attempt to keep up with other space powers who started planning their own stations around that same time.

Kulacki’s background paper on the subject is well worth reading, and has interesting detail on the internal deliberations that led China to abandon the notion of building a winged space shuttle and go with the Shenzhou capsule instead. He describes how 60 Chinese research organizations were asked for proposals for a reusable launch vehicle, six of which were chosen for further study in June 1988.

Five of the six proposals called for a space plane or space shuttle. The sixth proposal, in a challenge to the original request, called for a non-reusable launch vehicle with significantly less lift capacity, which could carry a much lighter capsule for use in a possible human program. In the end, after four years of increasingly contentious debate, this was the proposal that was adopted.

Opponents of the capsule proposal argued the combination of an existing Chinese launcher and small space capsule, like those used by the U.S. Apollo and Soviet Soyuz programs, was outdated technology. In August 1989 Ding Henggao, the director of and the head of an ad hoc National Leadership Small Group Office on Space, received a letter from the Advanced Technology Research Small Group of the Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT). The CALT letter argued a reusable space shuttle was “far superior” to the proposed capsule and was “the trend in international space development.” France had proposed a small space plane and the Soviet Union was beginning to develop its own shuttle program (which the new Russian government canceled in 1993 after only a single flight). The CALT group argued that launching astronauts in a space capsule rather than a shuttle would “not only not bring acclaim” to China’s space program, it would “disgrace the nation.”

Tu Shancheng, who headed the Project 863 experts group on space, called into question the value of a space shuttle. He calculated it would take a very large number of launches to realize the economy promised by any large reusable launch vehicle. Regardless of what China planned, it was highly unlikely China would approach such a high number of launches, especially since even the United States was well below the threshold Tu believed was needed to make a space shuttle economical.

Others members of the Project 863 expert group on space argued a space shuttle was unnecessarily complex, and carried a high risk of long delays given the state of Chinese aerospace technology at the time. Curiously, none of the Chinese histories mention the impact of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on this debate. Yet, for surprising and accidental reasons, it was this event, more than any other, which may have helped China’s experts move towards a consensus on the more modest capsule proposal. The accident coincided with an emerging Chinese interest in entering the satellite launch business.

Kulacki goes on to explain how, in the months following the Challenger accident, the United States decided that its space shuttle would get out of the business of launching commercial satellites. Chinese officials saw an opening for the county’s Long March rocket to compete for that business, and approved a more capable version of the Long March.

Success in … bringing the new launch vehicle into service quickly played a role in the ongoing debate over the human spaceflight program. China suddenly had an ability to place approximately 9.5 tons into low Earth orbit. That was enough to cover the first two stages of the tentative 30-year plan for a space station that was under consideration. Getting that plan underway in a reasonable period of time now seemed more feasible. It was at this point that set aside their preferences…and got behind the capsule proposal of a space capsule carried on a non-reusable launcher.