Sounding rocket programme (T-7)

Following the cancellation of Project 581, in the China Academy of Sciences (CAS) adjusted its space programme’s objective from orbiting a satellite to carrying out relevant research in satellite design, sounding rocket launches, space environment simulation, and telemetry systems. These researches, carried out between 1960 and 1965, paved the way for the launch of China’s first satellite in 1970.

The Satellite System Design Department, led by Qian Ji, was created in 1960 to carry out research on spaceframe, communications antenna, and power system for an Earth-orbiting satellite.

The telemetry system for sounding rocket launches was developed by the CAS Institute of Automation (then called the First Design Institute) and the tracking system by the CAS Institute of Geophysics (the Second Design Institute).

Between 1959 and 1964, the CAS Institute of Geophysics built a range of ground simulation facilities, including included vibration and impact test stands, ground climate simulator, 14 m-diameter centrifuge, and 2 m-diameter ultra-vacuum chamber. These were used for the testing of the sounding rocket and its payload in a simulated vacuum environment. 

Shanghai Institute of Machinery and Electronics (SIME) began the develop of China’s first sounding rocket, the T-7, in October 1959. The first step was production and test of the subscale prototype T-7M. Under the leadership of Wang Xiji, the test was conducted from a makeshift launch site consisting of a sandbag bunker and a 50 kW generator on the outskirt of Shanghai. There was no radio or telephony, so communications between the launch pad and the bunker was carried out by hand signal and voice. Tracking was done by manually-operated homing antennae. Bicycle pumps were used to fuel the rocket. The first T-7M test launch was conducted on 19 February 1960, reaching an altitude of 8,000 m.

On 28 May 1960, Mao Zedong, Yang Shangkun and other senior Party leaders visited the Shanghai New Technology Exhibition. As they stopped at the model of the T-7M, the interpreter explained that the success had been achieved without the help of the Soviet Union and all members of the development team were younger than 25. Impressed by what he saw, Chairman Mao encouraged the team to achieve 200 km or higher. In December 1960, a T-7M supplemented by solid boosters reached 9.8 km altitude.

The full-scale T-7 rocket consisted of a liquid-fuelled unguided core stage surrounded by solid-fuelled boosters. Designed to loft a payload of 25 kg to an altitude of 60 km, the rocket was 10 m in length, 0.45 m in diameter, with a launch mass of 1,138 kg.

Work began in March 1960 on a launch pad for the full-scale T-7 testing in a mountainous area of Guangde in southern Anhui Province, jointly founded by the CAS Institute of Geophysics and SIME. The first successful launch of the T-7 took place on 13 September 1960. After several attempts with varying degrees of success, the rocket finally reached the design altitude of 58 km in a suborbital flight on 23 November 1961.

From 1960 to 1965, a total of 24 T-7 launches were conducted in nine missions, including 9 launches carrying meteorological payloads from 4 August 1963 onwards.

In May 1961, the National Defence Science and Technology Commission (NDSTC), the body running China’s strategic weapon programme, instructed the CAS to characterize atmospheric temperature, pressure, density and winds up to an altitude of 100 km using sounding rockets, in preparation for China’s upcoming atmospheric nuclear tests.

As the basic T-7 variant could only reach an altitude of 58 km, SIME began to work on an improved T-7A model in January 1962, with the objective of taking a 40 kg payload to 115 km altitude. The rocket and its separable payload compartment were reusable and recovered by parachute, allowing biological, radiation sniffing, and geophysical experiments to be carried out. The first T-7A launch was carried out in December 1963, with both the rocket and its payload successfully recovered.

Between 1963 and 1967, the T-7A made several suborbital flights, acquiring valuable data of the upper atmosphere. The He Ping 1 (Peace-1) geophysics payload conducted a successful survey of electron density in the ionosphere. In December 1965, data was acquired regarding the equivalent electron density of the rocket exhaust plume up to 90 km altitude. In another test, a special Geiger counter for the measurement of high-altitude cosmic rays returned superb results. Based on the Doppler effect, a system of ionospheric measurement was designed. This work provided a solid foundation for tracking satellites in flight and the determination of their orbit parameters.

In 1963, SIME was transferred from the CAS to the military-run Fifth Academy (Missile Research Academy). In 1965, the Fifth Academy was reorganised into the Seventh Ministry of Machinery Industry (Ministry of Astronautics). As a result, its subordinate SIME became the Eighth Academy of the ministry, which later became known as Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST).

In 1963, the CAS Institute of Biophysics proposed to use the T-7A for biological and high-altitude medical research. SIME modified the rocket’s payload compartment into a pressurised capsule, equipped with onboard camera, oxygen supply, and electrocardiogram telemetry systems.

On 19 July 1964, a T-7A-I biology rocket carrying a group of white laboratory rates was launched from the Guangde Launch Site to an altitude of 70 km. The rats were then returned to Earth alive. This was followed by two more successful suborbital flights also carrying white laboratory rats in June 1965.

In October 1965, the CAS Institute of Biophysics proposed further suborbital flights carrying more advanced animals. SIME made further modifications to the T-7A rocket, including an enlarged 600 mm-diameter payload nosecone and improved tracking and telemetry systems. The rocket also carried additional propellants, increasing its take-off weight to 1,325 kg.

On 14 July 1966, a T-7A-II biology sounding rocket was launched, carrying China’s first space dog Xiao Bao (“Little Leopard”). The dog was selected from a pool of 30 experimental dogs through a strict training and screening process, and was trained to accept confinement, spacesuit, noise, vibration and physiological sensors. The rocket reached an altitude of 100 km, before returning the passenger capsule safely to Earth. Two weeks later a second launch was conducted on 28 July, sending space dog Shan Shan into space and then safely returning to Earth.

In August 1966, the Institute of Biophysics and SIME began the preparation for follow-on missions to send monkeys into space. However, the project was soon disrupted by the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution that began in the same year. With the scientists and engineers working on the biology sounding rocket programme denounced and even persecuted, the space monkey mission was soon abandoned.

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

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