In the early years of rocketry at Caltech, there was no figure more influential than the Chinese cyberneticist Qian Xuesen. Then, in 1955, the United States repatriated him to China, suspecting him of being a spy.
Qian returned to China to become the father of the country’s space-launch vehicle and ballistic-missile programs and contributed greatly to the “Two Bombs, One Satellite” nuclear weapons and space project. And his efforts were not wasted—on 9 March of this year, the People’s Republic of China launched its 300th Long March rocket, which put China’s 506th spacecraft into orbit.
To do more exploration at a lower cost, the Chinese government has initiated policies aimed at establishing a private space industry like the one that exists in the United States, where companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Rocket Lab are bringing low-cost launch services to the space sector.
In 2014, China’s State Council issued a proposal called Document 60 that would open the nation’s launch and small satellite sectors to private capital. The government followed this announcement with helpful policies, including a national civil-military integration strategy to transfer crucial, complex, and sensitive technologies from state-owned space sector giants to startups approved by authorities.
Today, more than 10 private launch companies in China are working on launch vehicles or their components, and four are now prepared to make their first attempts to reach orbit.
Two Beijing-based companies, OneSpace and iSpace, are close to putting small satellites into orbit with their own rockets. The first OneSpace OS-M1 rocket failed around one minute after launch from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert on 27 March and, at press time, the iSpace Hyperbola-1 was expected to follow up with its own attempt at Jiuquan as early as April. Both launch vehicles are relatively small and use a premixed solid combination of fuel and oxidizer, which is cheap, reliable, and simple to make but less efficient than liquid fuel.
LandSpace Technology Corp. made the first private Chinese orbital launch attempt in October using a solid-propellant rocket. After successful burns and separations of the first and second stages, a problem with the rocket’s third stage saw the Zhuque-1 rocket and its small satellite payload fall from an apogee of 337 kilometers into the Indian Ocean. It reached a top speed of 6.3 kilometers per second, just shy of the 7.9 km/s required to achieve orbit.
The company has moved on to develop a much larger and more capable two-stage launch vehicle powered by liquid methane and liquid oxygen. It hopes to carry out the maiden flight of the Zhuque-2 in 2020 and plans to eventually make the rocket reusable, though doing so will reduce lift capability.
Meanwhile, LinkSpace Aerospace Technology Group, founded in 2014, has set its sights on building an orbital launch vehicle capable of vertical takeoff and landing, as demonstrated by SpaceX’s Falcon 9. The company wants to have a maiden flight of the liquid-propellant launcher NewLine-1 in 2021, after testing its NewLine Baby suborbital rocket throughout this year.
Lan Tianyi, founder of Ultimate Blue Nebula Co., a space consultancy in Beijing, says China’s launch companies each have different goals and capabilities. Some firms are focusing on developing launchers powered by solid fuel, while others opt for liquid propellants, which may allow the rockets to be reused. Some are also exploring creative options to provide space tourism services. “The whole launch-vehicle ecosystem is getting more and more complete,” he notes.
While Chinese firms race to reach orbit and score commercial contracts to launch constellations of remote-sensing and communications satellites, these companies will also help China drive down launch costs, and make more missions possible with fewer resources.
“If the entire world is moving in the direction of lower-cost, reusable, commercially driven launch systems, anyone who does not keep up with this development may find themselves out of the game,” says John Horack, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Ohio State University.
That these companies have come so far so quickly is an indicator of the level of state support for aerospace in China, and a sign that this mature industry is full of expertise. But the question of whether or not private launch firms are truly ready for takeoff can be answered only on the launchpad.
This article appears in the May 2019 print issue as “Private Rockets Ready for Liftoff in China.”