On 4 October 1957, an R-7 rocket taking off from Baikonur placed the world’s first artificial satellite into earth orbit, a historical even that shook the world and marked the arrival of the space age. Inspired by the success, Chinese academia and political leadership envisaged the creation of the country’s own space programme. During the 2nd Session of the Eighth Conference of the Chinese Communist Party in May 1958, Chairman Mao Zedong proudly announced that China would follow its Soviet ally to launch a satellite.
On 10 September 1960, China successfully conducted its first ever ballistic missile test using a Soviet-supplied R-2 missile fuelled with Chinese-made propellants from the Jiuquan missile test range. Two months later, on 5 November, a Chinese-made Project 1059/R-2 missile was successfully tested, marking the success in China’s first ballistic missile development.
A secretive space programme was created under the code name “Project 581”, with the China Academy of Sciences (CAS) tasked with the development of the satellite. Qian Xuesen and Zhao Jiuzhang appointed the leader and deputy leader of the research team. In October 1958, two suborbital sounding rocket mock-ups were displayed during an internal exhibition attended by almost all senior party and government officials. The proposal for the development and launch of the satellite was approved in the same month.
A special budget of 200 million Yuan was allocated in October 1958 for the building of relevant R&D facilities, including a rocket engine test facility in Beijing, a wind tunnel, the Shanghai Institute of Mechanical-Electrical (rocketry research), Plant 581 (remote-control equipment), and Plant 109 (semiconductor components). Three research institutes were planned for rocketry, automated control, and space probing instruments respectively.
In early October 1958, a Chinese delegation of high-altitude atmospheric physics led by Zhang Jinfu, Party chief of the CAS, visited the Soviet Union. The delegation wished to study the Soviet space programme, including visiting its launch site and seeing a copy of the famous Sputnik satellite. However, the requests were rejected by Moscow and the delegation was only allowed to see a sounding rocket.
The ambitious space plan, however, was not met by the country’s economic and technological strength in reality. At time of the creation of Project 581, the Chinese missile and rocketry programme was still two years away from conducting its first ballistic missile test. Further disruption was caused by the economic hardship as a result of the disastrous ‘Great Leap Forward’ campaign in the late 1950s.
In January 1959, Zhang Jinfu conveyed the instruction from senior Party leaders including Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun, who suggested that the satellite programme was not compatible with the country’s economic and technological reality, and China’s space programme should be scaled back to sounding rocket launches. This decision effectively marked the end of Project 581, though relevant research in space exploration continued over the next decade.