Tianjiao 1/Changcheng 1/V-2/H-2: The Chinese Spaceplane

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An artist’s rendering of Changcheng 1, the likeliest of four spaceplane options considered by China in 1989. Image source and copyright status unknown, please contact the author if you know either. Click for larger view.

What it was: A set of studies in 1988 that looked to commit China to a spaceplane by no later than 2015. Four different approaches were examined:  am engine-less small spaceplane lifted by expendable boosters that would need to be designed, a craft similar to a scaled-down Space Shuttle lifted by then-current boosters and it’s own new engine, a Shuttle-sized orbiter of original design launched vertically on a flyback booster, and finally an advanced re-usable horizontal takeoff plane in which the first stage would be air-breathing and the second a spaceplane which would launch off the first’s while in mid-air.

Details: Following the cancellation of Project 714 the manned Chinese space program lay fallow for at least ten years. There are some signs that there was an attempt to revive it in the late 1970s, but the evidence for this is circumstantial: China successfully launched and recovered its unmanned FSW reconnaissance satellites, which were large enough to serve as a basis for a one-man space capsule, and there was a public reveal of an astronaut cadre in January 1980. There are rumours that the sudden cancellation of that training program in December of the same year was due to the loss of a taikonaut on a suborbital flight, but they’re probably just that: rumours. It’s much likelier that the program ended due to economic weakness and the political uncertainty between Mao’s death in 1976 and Deng Xiaoping’s consolidation of power in 1981.

By 1986 the issue had come to the fore again. As part of a general drive toward economic progress China had established Project 863 (863计划), a government program to develop advanced technical skills, similar to its contemporary MITI in Japan. Project 863 recommended seven scientific/engineering projects of which two were space related: 863-204, for the development of a manned space program, and 863-205, which looked to build a space station. The latter rose and fell with the space transport system and so didn’t get very far, but over the next few years several simultaneous studies were made in aid of 863-204. By 1988 the panel of experts assigned to evaluate the studies and synthesize them into a way forward had decided that the correct approach would be to aim for a manned ballistic capsule by 2000, with a spaceplane to follow by 2005-2015 depending on which of four approaches was taken—there was also a fifth, leasing Hermes shuttle technology from France, but that possibility was cut off by European sanctions following the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

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Tianjiao 1. Image ©Mark Wade of astronautix.com, used with permission.

The simplest of the four approaches suggested was Tianjiao 1 (“First in Space 1”), jointly proposed by the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST—the later developer of the Shenzhou capsule) and the aircraft division of the Ministry of Aerospace Industry. This was virtually an exact copy of the American shuttle or Buran’s aerodynamic shape, with only upturned wingtips, but a copy that was greatly scaled down: about half-size in length and width and a quarter of the mass. It could be launched into orbit on top of three expendable boosters—two smaller (and probably using N202 and UDMH) on the sides of a larger LOX/Kerosene rocket. The orbiter itself would have had no engines.

It’s reported that Tianjiao 1 would have had a crew of three, which is surprisingly large for its size, and had a payload of two or perhaps three tonnes to LEO. Had it gone forward, it was to have been launched for the first time in 2005.

Next in complexity was Changcheng 1 (“Great Wall 1”), which was suggested by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), at the time part of the Ministry of Aerospace Industry. It too closely resembled the US Space Shuttle, with just a few modifications. It would have no tail fin and two small wing-tip stabilizers, while a jet engine would have been added at the tail end for low-speed flight. To get to orbit it would have been lifted by three expendable boosters based on Long March technology and burning N2O2 and UDMH. The shuttle itself would be perched in the centremost of the three boosters and complete the burn to orbit after separation from the first stage rockets using its own engine running on the same two propellants.

The Changcheng 1 orbiter would have been about two-thirds the size of the US Shuttle or Buran, being 24.7 meters long, having a wingspan of 14 meters, and a landing mass of 32 tonnes . It would have carried five taikonauts (two of them pilots) and had a payload of 5 tonnes to LEO. If all went according to plan, the first flight would have been in 2008.

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The unfortunately-named V-2 spaceplane. Image ©Mark Wade of astronautix.com. Image used with permission.

The next proposal was for a spaceplane similar in concept to the US Space Shuttle but a little more advanced. Dubbed V-2, it was suggested by a third division of the Ministry of Aerospace Industry. Like Changcheng 1 this was a two-stage vertical takeoff system, the difference with the first stage being that it was recoverable like that of the US Shuttle and Buran. The proposal took the concept further, however, making the entire first stage recoverable (the STS lost its main fuel tank, while Buran expended its central Energia rocket) through a strategy that’s been considered several times but never developed: it would have been a flyback booster. Essentially the idea was to develop two shuttle-like bodies, the second of which would be the actual orbiter and which would side-mount on the first “shuttle”—this one being responsible for the original launch on a plume of burning O2 and kerosene. At separation partway into space, the orbiter would continue on upwards, propelled by its own LH2/LOX engines, while the booster shuttle would separate and fly back unmanned to a landing strip. There it would touchdown, roll to a stop, and be refurbished.

The V-2 orbiter would have been about the same size as the US Shuttle, and would have mounted a twenty meter long, three-meter in diameter pod on its back. Unfortunately it’s not known if the pod was intended for cargo and the main portion of the orbiter was for crew, or if the pod was for both crew and payload. As a result we’ve no good idea how many taikonauts it would have carried and how much it would have got to orbit. Whatever it would have done, though, it would have done it sometime around 2015.

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The horizontally launched H-2 spaceplane. Image ©Mark Wade of astronautix.com. Image used with permission.

The final possibility was the most advanced of all, a completely reusable two-stage-to-orbit spaceplane proposed by yet another division of the Ministry of Aerospace Industry. This one would take off horizontally at a paved strip by having its first stage fire eight LOX/LH2/CH4 tripropellant engines. At about Mach 2 the first stage would have fired up an air-breathing scramjet powered by liquid hydrogen and between that and its rockets would get to hypersonic speeds. The orbiter would then separate from its position on the first stage’s back and would have climbed to orbit on four LH2/LOX engines. Both the first stage and the orbiter would have been able to fly back to base and land on a landing strip for re-use.

This H-2, as it was called, would have been a monster. The first stage would have been 85 meters long, would have had a wingspan of 36 meters, and would have massed 79 tonnes when landing—lighter than but otherwise bigger than an Tupolev Tu-160, the largest supersonic plane ever built. The orbiter was slightly larger than the American and Soviet shuttles, at 40 meters by 12 meters by landing mass of 25.3 tonnes, though it had a lower maximum orbital height of 500 kilometers. Furthermore all that effort would have led to a fairly small payload: only six tonnes, as compared to 24 tonnes for STS and 30 tonnes for Buran. Its crew would have been two or three. Like the V-2 it was supposed to have flown sometime in 2015, though this seems optimistic. Had they pulled it off by then, or even somewhat after, it would have catapulted China to the forefront of reusable space technology.

After considering the possibilities, the final report of the 863-204 committee chose a ballistic capsule for the initial manned space program, to be followed by Changcheng 1.

What happened to make it fail: Deng Xiaoping was unpersuaded by the arguments made in favour of a spaceplane, or even a capsule, and refused to let either go forward. Ultimately he was pragmatically interested in economic development only, and saw the long-term nature of both programs (ten years to the ballistic capsule and up to twenty-five to the plane) as being too long a time frame to be useful in that regard.

What was necessary for it to succeed: Timing is everything. Deng began loosening his hold on power in 1989 when he resigned as Chairman of the Central Military Committee, thus giving up control of the Chinese military. In one of the first signs of their independence, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force decided to support the proposed manned ballistic capsule, possibly as part of their general modernization push in the early 90s. By 1991 the Ministry of Aerospace Industry formally re-established a Chinese manned space program and in 1992 got approval for a space capsule Premier Li Peng—the number two man in the government post-Deng, after Jiang Zhemin. This rapidly evolved into Project 921, which is to say the successful Shenzhou spacecraft that China has been launching with taikonauts aboard since 2003. Note the timing there: in 1989 Project 863 was aiming for a manned capsule launch in 2000, while three years later Project 921 was founded and got its launch three years after its predecessor predicted. Project 921 can be fairly interpreted as just being a new name for the first part of its immediate ancestor.

So with just a slightly different order of events it’s not too difficult to see the spaceplane going ahead. If 863-204’s final report had been made a year or two later than it was, Deng would have been in the lull of his informal control that followed his resignation (he managed to re-assert his soft power in 1993). Li Peng was a fan of state control and planning—he was also the godfather of the Three Gorges Dam—so he seems like just the type to think that working towards a 25-years-distant spaceplane would be the way to go. What would actually got built on that decompressed timeline is an open question.

The other route to Changcheng 1—Deng resigning a few years earlier—depends on how much you think Premier Li was instrumental to getting the Chinese manned space program running. If you think another figure in the Communist Party would have stepped into his shoes on this then it’s also a plausible route to a world where a Chinese spaceplane would be flying now or in the next couple of years. On the other hand, if you think he himself was necessary it’s likely that this wouldn’t have worked: Li ended up in the high position that he did because of his role in suppressing the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Furthermore his political longevity can be partially attributed to the CPC wishing to assert their own correctness in the face of world opinion condemning their actions. Without June 4, 1989, Li likely would not have been in the position he was, or remain in it as late as 1998 when his power waned.

And while it did not go ahead as planned in 1989, the Chinese dream of a spaceplane is not entirely dead. While Western observers have had a hard time figuring out what to make of it, in 2007 the Chinese media publicized a few images of what appears to be an air-launched, sub-scale, and sub-orbital spaceplane prototype, similar in appearance to the US Air Force’s X-37B.

Project 714 and Shuguang-1: The First Chinese Space Program

Cutaway and regular view of Shuguang-1 spacecraft, as well as it mounted on a Long March 2 rocket

A conjectural cutaway and regular view of Shuguang-1 spacecraft, as well as it mounted on a Long March 2 rocket, based partly on what we know about the craft and partly what we know about the Gemini on which is was based. Image © Mark Wade of astronautix.com, used with permission. Click for a larger view.

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.