The first artificial satellite (Project 651)

By the mid-1960s, China’s economy had recovered from the disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign between 1958 and 1961, allowing some degree of normalities to be restored. Despite the cancellation of Project 581, a small team of Chinese scientists were making breakthroughs in spaceflight technologies including spacecraft design, sounding rockets, telemetry and tracking system, and ground simulation systems. These efforts allowed the reborn of the Chinese space programme in the mid-1960s.

In October 1964, Zhao Jiuzhang, Director of CAS Institute of Geophysics, was invited to the Jiuquan missile range to witness a test launch of the indigenous Dong Feng-2 (DF-2) short-range ballistic missile. Zhao was also shown the associated ground telemetry and tracking systems. Highly impressed by what he saw, Zhao believed that a delivery system capable of orbiting 100 kg payload could be introduced within 4—5 years. Upon his return to Beijing, Zhao drafted a report outlining the significance, goals, and feasibility of a satellite launch mission. 

In December 1964, Zhao presented the report on the satellite mission to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, who forwarded the report on to Marshal Nie Rongzhen for consideration. In January 1965, Qian Xuesen also wrote to Nie Rongzhen, recommending the development of spaceflight and satellite technologies.

Under the instructions of Zhou Enlai and Nie Rongzhen, in early 1965, the National Defence Science & Technology Commission (NDSTC) hosted a series of seminars to discuss the satellite programme. By late April 1965, a plan had bee drafted outlining the roadmap for launching China’s first artificial Earth-orbiting satellite in 1970—1971.

The NDSTC’s satellite programme plan was approved by the State Council’s Central Special Committee in May 1965, which officially kicked off the programme. CAS was asked to produce the conceptual design of the first satellite before 10 June. Within 10 days, the CAS produced the concept of a sphere-shaped satellite that was 100 kg in mass and 1 m in diameter. The satellite was named Dong Fang Hong (“The East is Red”).

In July 1965, the CAS presented a detailed proposal for developing China’s first satellite, outlining the key principles for the programme:

  • The type and technical specifications of the satellite should be dependent on the country’s practical needs, not to merely surpass other countries;
  • The satellite project should be a coordinated effort between the various agencies and institutions;
  • There must be a centralised management and control for such a complex and challenging project;
  • The satellite programme should start with something simple, such as a scientific experiment satellite, and to progress to the recoverable satellite and other applied satellites;
  • The launch vehicle should initially be based on the intermediate-range ballistic missile, while a more powerful rocket could be developed later;
  • The launch of the first and subsequent few satellites should be conducted from the existing launch facility, while a new dedicated satellite launch centre should be built at a suitable location;
  • The ground tracking facilities would require a significant amount of development effort and time, and therefore must be carried out in phases, with both short- and long-term requirements being considered but the short-term requirements being given higher priority.

On 2 August 1965, the Central Special Committee approved the satellite development and launch programme, codenamed Project 651. The NDSTC was put in charge of the overall project, with the CAS responsible for the development of the satellite and its ground testing systems. The Seventh Ministry of Machinery Industry (Ministry of Astronautics) was responsible for the launch vehicle. The ground tracking radar and telemetry system were to be co-developed by the Fourth Ministry of Machinery Industry (Ministry of Electronics Industry) and the CAS. Base 20 (Jiuquan missile centre) was responsible for the launch site.

To maximise the mission’s political impact, the Central Special Committee demanded that China’s first satellite must be more advanced than that of the Soviet Union and the United States, with larger mass, stronger power output, and longer service life. Instead of broadcasting a repeating pulse radio signal, the satellite was required to broadcast from orbit “The East is Red”, a patriotic song glorifying the Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

Between 20 October and 30 November 1965, ‘Conference 651’ was held in the Friendship Hotel in Beijing, attended by 120 delegates from 13 government departments and agencies, including the CAS, the Seventh Ministry of Machinery Industry, and the Fourth Ministry of Machinery Industry. During the conference, detailed proposals for every aspect of the satellite programme, from satellite design, launch vehicle, orbit design, to the associated ground tracking systems, were presented to the delegates for review. The final details were briefed to Premier Zhou Enlai, who personally approved the proposals.

In January 1966, the CAS formed the Institute of Satellite Design (code name: “651 Institute”) for the development of the Dong Fang Hong 1 satellite. Zhao Jiuzhang was appointed Director of the institute, Yang Gangyi the Party Branch Secretary, and Quan Ji Deputy Director. The design team soon produced blueprints of the satellite’s profile, structure and ground track, as well as the technical specifications for all sub-systems.

Between March and May 1966, the CAS held a series of conferences in Beijing to develop the roadmap for China’s space programme over the next decade. During the session on 19 May, five presentations were made to the audiences:

In his presentation titled “Thoughts on the Planning for Our Country’s Satellites’, Zhao Jiuzhang outlined four key areas for the development of China’s satellites and spacecraft: (1) to lay technological foundation through the launch of scientific experimental satellite; (2) to develop a comprehensive family of military applications satellites, with the recoverable film-return reconnaissance satellite as the primary goal, to also include SIGINT, communications, meteorology, nuclear detonation detection, missile early warning, ground survey, and navigation satellites; (3) to develop the recoverable reconnaissance satellite into a crew capsule spacecraft; (4) to develop counter-jamming and self-defence capabilities for the satellites.

Qian Ji presentation, titled “Thoughts on the Development of Reconnaissance Satellite”, outlined the concept of a recoverable reconnaissance satellite that could be used for surveillance and targeting to support China’s nuclear missile weapon system.

Jia Siguang from the Academy of Military Medicine delivered a presentation on the purpose of human spacecraft in military applications.

Xu Liancang from the CAS Institute of Psychology presented the concept for a manned spacecraft vehicle.

Li Yicheng from the CAS Institute of Mathematics presented the selection of orbits for China’s satellites.The conference decided on the priority for China’s satellite development after the initial success with the scientific experimental satellite, in the order of reconnaissance / Earth-observation satellites, communications satellites, meteorological satellites, human spacecraft, and navigation satellites. Interestingly, China’s spacecraft development over the next three decades followed almost exactly this order.

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

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