01 September 2014

China’s Space Development History: A Comparison of the Rocket and Satellite Sectors

Now available in print edition: a detailed history of Chinas leading space sectors! Draws on and cites demonstrably authoritative Chinese-language sources previously unavailable in English.

Andrew S. Erickson, “China’s Space Development History: A Comparison of the Rocket and Satellite Sectors,” Acta Astronautica 103 (October/November 2014): 142–67.


• China׳s first space achievements were in military/civilian rockets and satellites.
• Nuclear power status and deterrence required missiles to credibly deliver warheads.
• Satellites were also prioritized for strategic reasons and lack of import options.
• Foreign heritage and prioritized domestic efforts enabled progress amid obstacles.
• China now has many increasingly-advanced and -supported systems, some cutting-edge.


China is the most recent great power to emerge in aerospace. It has become the first developing nation to achieve some measure of aerospace production capability across the board. Outside the developed aerospace powers, only China has demonstrated competence concerning all aspects of a world-class aerospace industry: production of advanced rockets, satellites, and aircraft and of their supporting engineering, materials, and systems. As an emerging great power during the Cold War, China was still limited in resources, technology access, and capabilities. It thereby faced difficult choices and constraints. Yet it achieved increasing, though uneven, technological levels in different aerospace sub-sectors. Explaining this variance can elucidate challenges and opportunities confronting developing nations sharing limitations that previously constrained China.

Rockets (missiles and space launch vehicles/SLVs) and satellites (military and civilian) were two areas of early achievement for China, and represent this article’s two in-depth case studies. Initial import of American and Soviet knowledge and technology, coupled with national resources focused under centralized leadership enabled China to master missiles and satellites ahead of other systems. Early in the Cold War, great power status hinged on atomic development. China devoted much of its limited technical resources to producing nuclear weapons in order to “prevent nuclear blackmail,” “break the superpowers’ monopoly,” and thereby secure great power status. Beijing’s second strategic priority was to develop reliable ballistic missiles to credibly deliver warheads, thereby supporting nuclear deterrence. Under Chairman Mao Zedong’s direction and the guidance of the American-educated Dr. Qian Xuesen (H.S. Tsien), missile development became China’s top aerospace priority. Satellites were also prioritized for military-strategic reasons and because they could not be purchased from abroad following the Sino-Soviet split. By the Cold War’s end, China had achieved comprehensive rocket and satellite capabilities. Today it is pursuing cutting-edge systems in both areas, continuing formidable indigenous development while absorbing foreign technology where possible. To understand the reasons for China’s aerospace development trajectory it is necessary to consider closely its specific history and larger context.

The article will therefore examine the decision-making, organization, and technological development that made such progress possible.

Acknowledgements & Clarifications

The views expressed here are those of the author alone. They do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government. The author is grateful for invaluable suggestions from Michael Chase, two anonymous reviewers, and a former U.S. official.

This article will not address China’s successful human spaceflight program. While earlier efforts failed for lack of funding and prioritization, the Shenzhou program (Project 921) initiated in January 1992 allowed China to become the third nation to orbit an astronaut independently in 2003 and achieve its first (the world’s third independent) extra vehicular activity in 2008. In 2011, a three astronaut-mission docked with the Tiangong-1 target module in preparation for building a full-fledged space station. For details, see the 中国载人航天科普丛书 [China Manned Space Science Book Series] published by 中国宇航出版社 [China Astronautics Press].