What it was: The first serious attempt by China to put a person into orbit, starting in 1966 though really only getting going in 1971. Using a capsule called Shuguang-1 (“Dawn-1”, 曙光一号 in Chinese) they looked to launch a Gemini-like two-taikonaut craft on top of a beefed-up Long March 2 rocket before the start of 1974. The name derives from April 1971, when the decision to go with a two-man capsule was made.
Details: The Chinese first planned to put up a satellite in 1959, but the usual delays pushed the date into the Sino-Soviet split and the USSR withdrew the technicians and plans the Chinese were relying on in June 1960. Nevertheless, the Chinese committed to an indigenous missile and space program and pushed on. By 1966 the first steps to a manned space flight had begun. China’s first suborbital animal test flights on top of a DF-2 ballistic missile were scheduled for May 1966 but that month marked the start of the Cultural Revolution. The Academy of Sciences was taken over by the Red Guards and outside of the ballistic missile program (which was protected by Zhou Enlai) rocketry research in China ground to a halt for two years.
In April 1968 the main scientists involved (particularly Qian Xuesen, the American-trained father of Chinese rocketry) had been rehabilitated and the manned space program reorganized under military control, which gave them a degree of cover from the Red Guards. In April 1970 China launched its first unmanned satellite, Dongfanghong-1 (东方红一号 or “The East is Red-1”), and Mao Zedong publicly announced that China was working on a manned craft.
Taikonaut selection began in October of the same year, with nineteen of them picked out by March 15, 1971. The next month then saw the aforementioned conference that settled on a two-man capsule based on what was publicly known about the US’s Gemini. Wang Xiji, who had designed the Long March 1 that lofted Dongfanghong-1, was selected as the capsule’s main designer.
Shuguang-1 never got off paper, but what we know about it suggests the same basic setup as a Gemini capsule. There was a forward re-entry capsule meant to house two and an aft equipment module. Like the Gemini, the equipment module was designed to sever in two just before re-entry, exposing four retrorockets that would bend its trajectory back to Earth and not incidentally lighten it to make its return through the atmosphere less rough. Even so, it’s estimated that the journey would be considerably rougher on its passengers than either a Mercury or Vostok: up to 11 G’s on the ride to orbit and 8 G’s on re-entry. Despite its relatively large size it would have been lighter than a Gemini or even a Vostok, easily the lightest two-man capsule ever built, and as part of the return on that its taikonauts would have had to suffer 150 decibels during the launch. It’s unknown if it would have landed on solid ground or on water, though it’s worth noting that the Chinese did develop a small squadron of ships to let them communicate with satellites when they weren’t over Chinese territory—they may have been intended to serve double-duty and recover crew capsules after an ocean splashdown.
What happened to make it fail: The proximate cause of the program’s cancellation was the apparent closeness of the project to General Lin Biao. The anointed successor of Mao Zedong, he fell out of favour and then died in a plane crash under murky circumstances on September 13, 1971. The Chinese government announced that he had been involved in a plot against them, and they eventually came to the conclusion that Project 714 was the hub of the conspiracy (some of their evidence was the fact that 7-1-4 in Mandarin is a homophone for the words “Armed Uprising”). Though the space program supposedly continued through the rest of the decade, there’s no evidence that any progress was made after May 1972. Wang Xiji was targeted, but remained free to work on unmanned satellites; Xue Lun, head of the taikonaut group, was purged and the cadre of taikonauts was released back to their units. Mao apparently changed his mind about the manned space program too, and refused to give even minimal funds when asked for them.
More basically, Project 714’s problem was that it took place almost entirely within the Cultural Revolution—which makes it astonishing that it even got as far as it did. Scientists and engineers were at considerable risk of exile and imprisonment during the time period and universities were unable to train anyone, so skills were in short supply. As the program was officially secret, they were unable to gain official protection from any Politburo member and were a wide-open target.
China’s economy hit a nadir in the same time frame, and so money was an enormous issue too. In 1970 the entire Chinese GDP was about US$110 billion, and the Apollo program cost roughly US$2 billion per year at a time when the US economy ranged from six to nine times larger (and almost 40 times per capita). Even the USSR’s economy was about 40% the size of the US’s. There was no possible way the Chinese government could come up with those kinds of funds and there’s evidence that they didn’t try very hard. One source reports that the project headquarters had a grand total of one telephone.
What was necessary for it to succeed: China had a brief period of economic reform in the few years between the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution (roughly 1961-66). If it had continued, rather than falling prey to an increasingly paranoid and eccentric Mao, the Chinese manned space program at least had a chance.
The main piece of evidence for this is China’s FSW satellites, which were also designed by the man selected to design Shuguang-1: Wang Xiji. This remarkably good unmanned satellite was designed to re-enter from orbit and soft-land somewhere in China, and furthermore it was somewhat larger than the manned Mercury capsule (1800kg as compared to 1355kg, and the Vostok’s 4730kg). They flew successfully, including a re-entry, three times between 1975 and 1978. There are even rumours, likely wrong, that the Chinese had a failed manned launch of an FSW-derived capsule in 1980.
Rumours aside, the Chinese had some of the necessary technology to put an astronaut into space by the early 80s, despite the horrible dislocations the country had gone through since 1931. A two-decade head start on the 1980s economic reforms (though unlikely to have been as successful as the ones that actually did happen) would have given a Chinese government sufficiently interested in a propaganda coup the wherewithal to become the third country to launch a man into space almost two decades before they actually did it.
One small aspect of Project 714 did come to fruition. Xichang in Sichuan Province was selected as the site for its launch facility, and while very little was done at the time it became the third of China’s three main spaceports in 1984.