Long March 2 Chronology (Part 6): The divine arrow

Despite being unsuccessful as a commercial endeavour, the Long March 2E continued its service life in its man-rated version, the Long March 2F, which has been exclusively used for China’s human spaceflight missions since 1999.

The Chinese space industry originally envisaged the development of a dedicated heavy-lift rocket for its crew capsule vehicle and space stations. However, concerns over the cost of the programme at its initiation in the early 1990s led to the decision to develop the Long March 2E into a man-rated launch vehicle. 

The development of the man-rated launch vehicle, designated Long March 2F, began in 1992. The 2F model was almost identical to the 2E model in basic design, but its onboard electronic and control systems were completely redesigned for improved safety and reliability. The vehicle’s structural strength was also enhanced in order to support the heavy crew capsule and launch escape system.

These modifications resulted in an increase of the launch vehicle’s overall height from 49.69 m to 58.34 m, and its launch weight from 462.5 t to 479.8 t. The launch vehicle is capable of placing up to 8,000 kg payload to a 200 km x 350 km parking orbit, where the spacecraft vehicle then uses its own propulsion to move into its operating orbit.

Long March 2F carrying Shenzhou in transit to the launch pad atop the Mobile Launcher Platform
Long March 2F on the launch pad
Long March 2F payload fairing and launch escape tower

The Long March 2F launch vehicle consists of 9 sub-systems: airframe, propulsion, guidance and flight control, propellant management, error detection and diagnosis, launch escape, telemetry, remote test, and auxiliaries.

On 20 November 1999, the Long March 2F made its maiden flight from the newly constructed Pad 921 in Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre, placing the unmanned Shenzhou 1 test vehicle into orbit.

On 15 October 2003, the Long March 2F (Y5) lofted Shenzhou 5 into orbit from Jiuquan. The spacecraft carried a single passenger, Yang Liwei, China’s first ever man in space. The launch vehicle was named “Shen Jian” (Devine Arrow) for its role in achieving this historical milestone.

In 2011, CALT introduced an improved version of the Long March 2F, featuring 170 items of improvements in its design, and an increased payload capacity of 8,100 kg for manned missions and 8,600 kg for unmanned missions.On 29 September 2011, a Long March 2F improved version placed the Tiangong 1 orbital station module into orbit.


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Freelance reporter and writer. Chinese military and space programme observer. Editor and publisher of SinoDefence.com and ChinaSpaceReport.com

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