The satellite programme (Project 651) entered full-speed development in the late 1960s. The China Academy of Sciences (CAS) was responsible for the development of the satellite. The Seventh Ministry of Machinery Industry was responsible for the development of an orbital launch vehicle based on its Dong Feng-4 (DF-4) intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM). The Fourth Ministry of Machinery Industry and the CAS were co-developing the ground tracking and telemetry systems. The mission was to be launched from the Jiuquan missile base (Base 22).
China’s first satellite, named Dong Fang Hong (“The East is Red”) 1, was a symmetrical 72-faced polyhedron 1 m in diameter, with an orbital mass of 173 kg. The satellite was designed to broadcast radio signals of a patriotic song, The East is Red, in 20 MHz HF radio signal from the Earth orbit.
As well as being ‘heard’, the political leadership also demanded the satellite to be ‘seen’ by people around the world – not an easy task for something of this size in orbit. Chinese space engineers came up with a solution by fitting the third-stage of the launch vehicle with a medal ‘observation skirt’. Once the satellite was deployed, the third-stage flying closely behind in orbit would deploy the skirt to reflect the sunlight, so that it could be observed in the night sky by naked eyes. So it was the booster stage, not the satellite, that was being observed by millions people enthusiastically across China.
The Dong Fang Hong 1 development was seriously disrupted by the ‘Cultural Revolution’ that began in 1966. Red guards stormed the CAS entities and denounced its officials and scientists. Many scientists working on the satellite programme were persecute, while others were sent to labour camps to receive ‘re-education’. Zhao Jiuzhang, who was accused of being ‘counterrevolution’ and spying for foreign countries, committed suicide while in prison.
To save the programme, Premier Zhou Enlai ordered in 1967 the transfer of the satellite development programme from the civilian CAS to the military. In February 1968, over 6,000 staff were reassigned from the CAS to the newly-form China Academy of Space Technology (5th Academy) under the jurisdiction of the Seventh Ministry of Machinery Industry (Ministry of Astronautics). Institutes transferred out of the CAS included:
- 651 Institute (Satellite Design Institute), including 501 and 511 Department.
- Institute of Automation (502 Institute)
- Southwest Institute of Electronics (504 Institute)
- Institute of Application Geophysics (505 Institute)
- Lanzhou Institute of Physics (510 Institute)
- Shanghai Institute of Machinery & Electronics (508 Institute)
- Beijing Factory of Scientific Instruments (Satellite Fabrication Factory, or 529 Factory)
- Shanghai Factory of Scientific Instruments (539 Factory)
- Taigu Factory of Scientific Instruments (549 Factory)
Resources and funding for the satellite programme were limited. As a result, engineers and technicians had to use whatever they could get their hands on to continue with their research and development work. The prototype satellite for ground testing was pretty much made by hand. To simulate the cold weather of the launch site, the thermal control test of the satellite was carried out inside a navy cold storage.
Construction of a new launch complex (North Launch Site, or Launch Complex 2) began at the Jiuquan missile test base (Base 22) in northwest China in the mid-1960s. The launch complex, which consisted of two launch pads (Pad 5020 and 138), were designed to support ICBM testing and satellite launches. The launch complex became China’s first space launch site, having supported all Chinese launch missions to LEO until 1996.
The 1st Academy of the Seventh Ministry of Machinery Industry began the development of a two-stage ballistic missile with up to 4,000 km range in 1965. The missile, designated Dong Feng-4 (DF-4, NATO designation: CSS-3), was the Chinese rocket to have adopted a new bi-propellant with unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) as fuel and nitrogen tetroxide (N2H4) as oxidiser. In 1966, the 1st Academy was asked to modify the missile into a space launch vehicle for the Dong Fang Hong 1 mission. A small solid rocket 3rd-stage was added to provide enough payload capacity to deliver the 173 kg satellite to the orbit.
The launch vehicle for the Dong Fang Hong 1 mission was named Chang Zheng 1 (CZ-1) (Chang Zheng = “Long March”), after the famous strategic manoeuvres of the Chinese Red Army in the 1930s to evade the pursuit of the Kuomintang army. The first DF-4 test was conducted from Jiuquan on 16 November 1969. However, the missile’s first- and second-stage failed to separate and the second-stage didn’t ignite. A second test was successfully conducted on 30 January 1970, paving the way for the satellite mission.
529 Factory produced two operational satellites for the Dong Fang Hong 1 mission in March 1970, and the launch campaign began on 1 April when the satellites and their launch vehicle arrived at the Jiuquan missile base by railway. It took two weeks for the satellite and launch vehicle to undergo the pre-launch preparations, before they were moved the launch pad for assembly.
The historical moment came on 24 April, when the CZ-1 launch vehicle carrying Dong Fang Hong 1 lifted off at 21:35. Seven minutes into the flight, the mission control confirmed that the satellite had successfully separated from the third-stage and entered orbit. China became the fifth country in the world to have the ability to orbit a satellite, after the Soviet Union, United States, France, and Japan.
Just over 10 months later, the second satellite, named Shi Jian 1 (Shi Jian = “Practice”), was launched by a CZ-1 launch vehicle from Jiuquan on 2 March 1971. The satellite remained in orbit for eight years before deorbiting, proving the reliability of the onboard batteries.