The recoverable satellites, or Fanhui Shi Weixing (FSW), were first introduced in the 1970s for military reconnaissance and land survey roles. This was China’s first application satellite programme, following on from the initial success in China’s space exploration with the launch of two scientific experimental satellite missions in the early 1970s. The programme also led to the introduction of the Long March 2 booster, and paved the way for the subsequent development of human spaceflight technology.
In 1965, the Chinese political leadership approved the plan for developing the country’s space programme (Project 651). The China Academy of Sciences (CAS) was tasked with the development of the satellites, using the long-range ballistic missiles being developed by the Seventh Ministry of Machinery Industry (Ministry of Astronautics). A new organisation dedicated for the satellite development was created within the CAS, under a covet name “Institute of Scientific Instruments”, or 651 Institute in its code name.
Chinese space scientists noticed the military value of satellites from very early on, based on the military applications of Soviet and U.S. space projects and missions, especially those for reconnaissance and Earth-observation roles. As a result, they recommended that China’s space programme should be focused on application satellites, especially photographic reconnaissance satellites.
During the conference between 11 and 25 May 1966 for the planning of China’s space programme, 651 Institute’s Director Zhao Jiuzhang and Deputy Director Qian Xi presented their 10-year satellite development plan, which outlined the roadmap for the development of China’s space programme.
According to the plan, China’s space programme should begin with the launch of 1 to 2 scientific experimental satellite missions to demonstrate the orbital launch and telemetry technologies. These should then be followed by a film-return reconnaissance satellite programme, before the introduction of more application satellites for communications, meteorology, nuclear detonation detection, missile early-warning, and navigation roles. The atmospheric re-entry technique of the reconnaissance satellite could also be used for the development of manned capsule spacecraft.
The recoverable satellite system team was formed under 651 Institute to conduct relevant pre-researches, including the selection of the satellite’s orbit, as well as recovery and stabilisation techniques. Analysis and calculations were carried out for the satellite’s re-entry trajectory, landing accuracy, retro-fire motor, re-entry aerodynamics, structural strength, and re-entry heat protection. Yang Jiachi and Zhang Guofu of the CAS Institute of Automation proposed a three-axis stabilisation for the satellite, and used performed simulations and calculations on analogue and digital computers.
In August 1965, the Shanghai Institute of Machinery and Electronics (SIME) was transferred from the CAS to the Seventh Ministry of Machinery Industry, and soon began to work on the recoverable satellite development under the direction of Wang Xiji. The concept of the recoverable satellite was developed between March and September 1967. At the same time, two CAS research institutes were working on the satellite’s onboard camera and films under the direction of Wang Daheng.
On 11 September 1967, the National Defence Science and Technology Commission (NDSTC) reviewed and approved the proposed recoverable satellite design. Following the review, the Seventh Ministry made further improvements to the satellite design based on the feedbacks, and decided on a two-step development strategy: To first make breakthrough in the onboard camera, three-axis stabilisation, and satellite recovery technologies, with the launch of 3 to 4 experimental missions. This was to be followed by the development and launch of operational satellites with operable Earth-observing packages in the second phase of the programme.