In the 1980's, the 863 Plan was formed to study and transform Chinese high technology. One of the technologies being studied was space technology. Two committees were formed to study space technology. Project 863-204 studied launch vehicles and space transportation. Project 863-205 studied a manned space station.
By April 1987, the Project 863-204 committee involved over 60
institutes and organizations to find proposals for a space transportation
system. Six proposals merited further study:
- A manned capsule type spacecraft based on the Soviet Soyuz (proposed by the Fifth Space Academy)
- TianJiao 1 space shuttle (proposed by the First Space Academy)
- ChangCheng 1 space shuttle (proposed by Shanghai Space Bureau and 604 Aircraft Design)
- V-2 rocket plane (proposed by 11th Aeronautics Institute)
- H-2 aerospace plane (proposed by 601 Aircraft Design Institute)
- A mini space shuttle based on the European Hermes (proposed by 611 Aircraft Design Institute)
In 1988, two proposals made it to the final cut. The ChangCheng 1 space shuttle and the ballistic capsule based upon the Soyuz were given further consideration. Debate raged for two years until the ballistic capsule approach was chosen, given its lower risk and lower cost¹.
On 1 August 1992, a three-step development plan for China's
manned space program was presented:
- Phase I: To launch a manned mission by 2002 and finalize designs.
- Phase II: To launch a temporary space laboratory by 2007.
- Phase III: To launch a permanent space station.
On 21 September 1992, the manned space program was formally accepted at a meeting hosted by Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Project 921 was born.
The manned space program was composed of seven sub-systems in
- Astronaut (Project 921-1)
- Spacecraft applications (Project 921-2)
- Manned spacecraft (Project 921-3)
- Launch vehicle (Project 921-4)
- Launch site (Project 921-5)
- Tracking, telemetry, and telecommunications (Project 921-6)
- Recovery site (Project 921-7)
In Phase II, this was expanded to eight sub-systems:
- Astronaut System (Project 921-1)
- Application System (Project 921-2)
- ShenZhou Manned Spacecraft System (Project 921-3)
- Launch Vehicle System (Project 921-4)
- Launch Site System (Project 921-5)
- Tracking, Telemetry & Command (TT&C) System (Project 921-6)
- Landing Site System (Project 921-7)
- Space Lab System (Project 921-8)
Project 921 entered full development in 1993. Two Chinese pilots, Wu Jie and Li Quiglong, went to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Russia. They returned in 1998 and joined with a team of 12 astronaut candidates in 1999.
Phase 2 commenced with the launch of ShenZhou 7 in 2008. It continued with the launch of TianGong 1 in 2010 and flights of ShenZhou 8, ShenZhou 9, and ShenZhou 10. It continues with the 15 September 2016 launch of TianGong 2 and ShenZhou 11. It will conclude with the early 2017 launch of an unmanned cargo resupply ship, Tianshou 1. It DOES seem odd that there would be a resupply mission if no future manned missions were planned, but it is continuing test of the feasibility of maintaining a lab in orbit. This resupply mission concluded in September 2017. Tiangong 2 will continue in orbit for more experiments and tests.
Phase III will provide a large, permanent space station where astronauts can live for long periods. Tiangong 3 will consist of three primary modules. Tianhe 1 will be the core module providing living space and control functions. Wentian and Mengtian will be laboratory modules permanently attached to the core. The Xiantian Space Telescope will fly in formation with Tiangong 3 and will dock from time to time for servicing and refueling. The initial launch of Tianhe will be in the 2018/19 timeframe. The station will be first visited by Tianshou 2 for a refuel and supply mission, then by Shenzhou 2 for the first manned mission, possibly 3-6 months in duration. The station will not be continuiously occupied until it becomes fully operation about 2022. If deemed necessary, a second core module (Tianhe 2) will be added to provide additional space and, more importantly, more docking ports.
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NOTE: There exists a (strong) tendency to confuse Project 921 sub-systems with Project 921 phases. For example, Project 921-2 is often (erroneously) referred to as being the Chinese space station. In actuality, Project 921-2 is the spacecraft applications sub-system for Project 921. The Chinese space station(s) falls under two Project 921 phases, Phase 2 (temporary space station) and Phase 3 (permanent space station). Project 921-3 is NOT a space shuttle, but is the manned spacecraft sub-system. There is NO phase or sub-system dealing with a space shuttle. A shuttle was merely a consideration during the early days of 921-3.
1.) Qian Xeusen (father of the Chinese space program) had a strong influence upon this decision.
2.) There is some controversy as to whether Shenzhou 6 was the conclusion of Phase 1 or the beginning of Phase 2. Perhaps it could best be described as transitional.