The Fifth Academy

In his plan for developing China’s jet propulsion technology and rocketry research, Dr Qian Xuesen recommended the creation of dedicated missile R&D institutions as well as a government body to provide oversight and planning for the entire missile and rocketry programme. This led to the creation of three organisations for the missile programme in 1956, all under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of National Defence (MND).

The Aeronautical Industry Commission established on 13 April 1956 was a governmental and military office for overseeing China’s military aviation and rocketry R&D. Marshal Nie Rongzhen, the patron of the Chinese strategic weapon programme, was appointed the commission’s director.

The Fifth Bureau established on 6 August 1956 was the executive agency for managing the missile development programme. The bureau had 146 staff and was headed by Qian Xuesen.

The Fifth Academy established on 8 October 1956 was the primary missile research, development, testing and production institution. The academy was also headed by Qian Xuesen. In March 1957, the Fifth Bureau was merged into the Fifth Academy to create a single entity with overall responsibility for China’s missile development.

Over the year, the Fifth Academy would have grown substantially in size and eventually evolved into today’s Chinese aerospace industry, which comprises two large state-owned aerospace consortia employing over 200,000 people in total. However, back then the situation was very different. At the time of its creation, the academy had merely 300 staff, two thirds of whom had just graduated from university and none had seen a real rocket. Operating from their temporary home in a disused military hospital and two sanatoriums in Beijing, Qian and his assistants’ first task was to develop curriculum for the staff on the foundation knowledge of rocketry and aerodynamics.

Luckily for Qian, the missile programme was given the highest priority in funding and resources allocation. He put together a list of 21 key persons required to work on the missile programme, and received them with no delay. Just like Qian himself, most of the people on the list were Western trained scientists and engineers, including Ren Xinmin (MSc and doctorate in mechanical engineering from University of Michigan), Tu Shancheng (MSc and doctorate in electrical engineering from Cornell University), Liang Shoupan (MSc from MIT), Tu Shou’e (MSc from MIT), and Huang Weilu (MSc from the Imperial College, University of London). They later all became leading figures in China’s missile and space programme.

Despite lacking any experience or technical know-how to build even the simplest rocket, the Fifth Academy was set some very ambitious objectives for the period of the PRC’s Second Five-Year Plan (1958—1962) in March 1957. These included the reverse-engineering of Soviet short-range ballistic missile and the independent development of an indigenous medium-range ballistic missile, as well as the development of unmanned target drones.

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

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