On April 24 1970, China launched its first satellite. At 9.35pm a Long March rocket – the first of its kind – blasted off from Jiuquan in Inner Mongolia, marking China’s entry into the Cold War space race.
In many ways it was a miracle it happened at all. The Cultural Revolution was in full swing and many scientists were killed or purged.
It was only because Premier Zhou Enlai fought to keep the project going that it survived. Almost as proof of its loyalty to Mao Zedong, the satellite was designed to transmit the revolutionary anthem The East is Red from space.
On orbit day the 173 kilogramme polyhedron – think of a large disco ball with toothpicks sticking out of the sides – was transported to its launch site under military guard. Today, China’s space programme is much changed. It has sent 11 people into orbit, launched probes to the moon and is building its own space station. Like other space-faring nations, the state has relinquished its monopoly on rocket launches, so that private companies can put satellites into orbit too.
In the last few months that act of deregulation in 2014 has begun to bear fruit with two private companies successfully launching rockets and delivering commercial payloads into orbit.
The first was iSpace, a Beijing-based firm also known as Interstellar Glory Space Technology. Founded in 2016 by Peng Xiaobo, previously a director at China’s top state-owned rocket maker, the company beat dozens of others to the prize of being the first private enterprise to carry out a commercial launch.
Its Hyperbola-1 blasted off from Jiuquan on July 25, carrying two satellites, as well as a model of a car produced by one of its sponsors (Chang’an Automobile Group), and an empty bottle of baijiu by another (the marketing gimmick was that the Fijiu brand was the first rice wine to enter space).
It’s not clear how the association will benefit the brand, although baijiu has often been compared to rocket fuel.
According to Reuters the cost of the Hyperbola-1 launch was about $5 million – a fraction of the price charged by private companies in the US, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems.
To cut launch costs further iSpace plans to introduce a reusable rocket by 2021. It says it has clients from Singapore, Italy, Spain and Sri Lanka already expressing an interest.
China wants to create a constellation of commercial satellites that support high-speed internet for airplanes and tasks like tracking coal shipments and monitoring environmental change.
Prior to the successful launch from iSpace, two other firms – Landspace and Onespace – had tried and failed to get their payloads into orbit. Another contender, the China Rocket Company, became the second privately-held firm to get a commercial delivery into space this month – this time involving three satellites aboard its Jielong or ‘Smart Dragon One’ rocket.
One satellite will support communications services, another is allocated to remote sensing, and the third is designed to support an ‘Internet of Things constellation’, according to media reports.
However, while the media is touting the line that these are tremendous achievements for private sector firms, some netizens are sceptical about their real identity.
“How could a truly private company have access to technologies like these,” asked one.
Another pointed out that the China Rocket Company is actually the commercial wing of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp – a state-owned enterprise. CASC is the country’s main aerospace contractor, and it has direct links to the government agency that has supervised the building of most of China’s Long March rockets over the years.
SpaceNews, a 30 year-old publication based in Virginia, offered its own verdict on the achievement. “The launch [of the Jielong] is another manifestation of the Chinese national strategy of civil-military fusion, which includes facilitating the transfer of restricted technologies to approved firms in order to promote innovation in dual-use technology.”
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