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China’s Space Plane Program

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on July 27th, 2011


On July 21, 2011 at 5:57am the United States Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down ending the final mission of 30 years of Shuttle operations.  Praised as the most complex flying machine yet made by man and as the most famous example of American technological prowess, the Shuttle has also been criticized by many as an expensive Cadillac that failed to perform as advertised and shackled the U.S. to Low Earth Orbit.  But it is a fact that U.S. has no plans to build a similarly sized reusable launch vehicle (RLV).  Instead, the U.S. will purchase rides to the International Space Station (ISS) on Russian Soyuz space capsules while National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) helps to fund several private U.S. companies to develop smaller and more efficient space transport systems.

The End: On Chinese TV, coverage of the Shuttle’s last mission was followed by stories on China’s progress with its space station. Source: CCTV

China, however, in a series of  conference presentations made by engineers from the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), have outlined a program of research that could lead to one or two early RLV concepts under consideration. The first could be similar in size in the U.S. Space Shuttle, but with less than a third of its cargo capacity.  The other RLV proposal would not leave the atmosphere but would carry a second rocket stage that would put a small payload into Low Earth Orbit (LEO).  While these papers provide useful insights, China’s RLV program is not nearly as transparent as the U.S. Space Shuttle program and the current status of China’s RLV program is not known. However, scant data suggests that RLV research is well under way and that a smaller space plane called the Shenlong has been used to validate many space plane technologies. Scant data also suggests that pending a decision to proceed, China’s goal is to launch its RLV by about 2020, around the same time it plans to loft its 60 ton Space Station.  It is not known whether China is meeting success in developing the requisite space plane technology, but in China’s official media the space plane gets little attention compared to the Space Station. China’s space plane program is also at the cutting edge of what appears to be a more ambitions military hypersonic vehicle program. 

If the main mission for China’s space plane was simply to service China’s future Space Station there would be little cause for concern.  But this is not the case. Chinese sources indicate that from its inception that China’s space plane has been intended to perform military missions, to include space combat missions.  China’s space plane program is controlled by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and as has been the case with its smaller Shenzhou manned space capsule, will likely be “dual use,” designed to fulfill military and non-military missions.  China’s space planes may also be intended fulfill new strategies (doctrines) outlined by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Commander General Xu Qiliang in 2009, as "effecting air and space integration, possessing capabilities for both offensive and defensive operations.”[1] Chinese academic engineering literature contains occasional analysis of attacking Earth targets from Low Earth Orbit.  A rocket powered sub orbital RLV could also serve as an early hypersonic strike platform. 

China’s Space Plane Ambitions

China’s space plane ambitions likely date to when founding aerospace sector leaders like Qian Xuesen and his protégé Zhuang Fenggan returned to China from the United States, respectively, in 1955 and 1950.  Zhuang arrived at the California Institute of Technology in 1947 where he earned his Ph.D, and following Qian’s return they worked together building China’s aerospace sector, remaining close friends until Qian’s death in October 2009.[2] Both were deeply involved in China’s early long-range rocket programs and space programs. Qian had helped found CalTech’s famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory, helped interview WWII German rocket scientists and made many contributions to early U.S. rocket science. He coined the term “hypersonic” in 1946.[3] In 1949 Qian gave a lecture in which he proposed a space plane to carry passengers, a concept that inspired U.S. space plane programs that eventually led to the Space Shuttle.[4] In the late 1970s, after assisting Mao Zedong’s first aborted manned space program, Qian reportedly proposed a Chinese space plane similar in configuration to the U.S. Dyna-Soar combat/transport space plane program cancelled in 1963.[5]

China’s interest in space planes increased dramatically in the 1980s,[6] perhaps in reaction to the U.S. Space Shuttle and other space plane programs of the 1980s, including the Soviet Buran space shuttle, the French Hermes, and Japan’s Hope space plane program. Chinese military leaders were likely also worried about the U.S. and Soviet long-term investments in hypersonic vehicles, like Ronald Reagan’s unrealized X-30 “Orient Express” and successive unrealized Soviet-era hypersonic programs.[7] These and many other military high technology programs of the Americans, Russians and Europeans drove Deng Xiaoping to approve, in March 1986,  a large scale basic science and technology investment program later called the “863 Program.” Two subordinate programs were formed to pursue manned space capabilities.  The “863-204 Program” was responsible for developing a manned space transportation system, while the “863-205 Program” focused on development of a manned space station. 

863-204 Program Candidates: From 1987 to 1988 the 863-204 program considered five space plane concepts and though rejected, gave China’s hypersonics development a critical boost. Source: Chinese Internet

In September 1986 the Ministry of Aviation started initial space vehicle concept exploration, dubbed the “869 Project,” which fed into the “863-204” Program to determine China’s manned space vehicle development.  Initial Air Ministry 869 Project investigations are said to have engaged “hundreds of experienced experts.”[8] There was an early determination that China should immediately develop a reusable space plane.  It was decided that a space plane could perform certain military missions better than a space station, such as anti-satellite and reconnaissance, and enhance China’s “deterrence.”[9] The Air Ministry initially settled on a space plane with a 7 ton payload capable of carrying 3-5 people. Experts from the Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute (601 Institute), the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (BUAA), Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (NUAA) and Northwestern Polytechnical University (NPU) also expressed early interest in two-stage-to-orbit (TSTO) concepts, to include  reusable hypersonic platforms with an air-breathing engine to serve as a first stage to launch a smaller space plane.  By 1988, however, space planes fell from favor due to their complexity, long development timelines and new doubts that followed the 1986 U.S. Shuttle Challenger accident.  Chinese aerospace leaders instead opted for a faster to develop, cheaper and lower-risk rocket-launched space craft solution, which would become the current Shenzhou manned space capsule.

However, the 863-204 Program’s five space plane proposals remain significant because they helped build research infrastructure and expertise that would propel subsequent space plane and hypersonic-related research. In addition, most of those proposals are relevant to potential future Chinese space plane efforts. The proposals included:

Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute (601 Institute) H-2 TSTO Concept.   Of particular interest regarding potential future programs, the 601 Institute of the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation likely gained an early appreciation of hypersonic development issues though its proposal for a two-stage-to-orbit (TSTO) concept.  The first stage was to be a 198 ton take-off weight re-usable aircraft with a dual rocket-ramjet engine capable of reaching a hypersonic speed after which rockets would power a 132 ton space plane into orbit.  The space plane could have carried a crew of three, although payload would have been small as most of its mass would have been used for fuel. All that exists of this program today is a model in the Shenyang Aircraft Co. private museum. 

Shenyang’s 1986 TSTO Concept: Seen in model form in the Shenyang Aircraft Co. museum. Source: Chinese Internet

Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute (611 Institute) Hermes Co-Production.   In June 1982, the PLA sent a delegation to France’s Dassault fighter company to test fly and consider for purchase the Mirage-2000 jet fighter.[10] Apparently, as its likely co-producer, the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) was able to establish a cooperative relationship with Dassault that led to access to its Hermes space plane program starting in the early 1980s.  Apparently this access had progressed to the point that the Air Ministry viewed possible co-production of the Hermes as a near-term (1990s) option to obtain a space plane.[11]  CAC may also have gained essential insights from Dassault’s design evolution that saw Hermes start as a TSTO concept utilizing a hypersonic aircraft first stage, to using the conventional Ariane-5 space-launch vehicle (SLV) to reach orbit. However, the European Union arms embargo that followed the June 1989 Tiananmen Massacre ended this option.  As for the Hermes, it was cancelled in 1993 following successive redesigns that added new technology and cost but reduced payload.[12]  Had there been no Tiananmen Massacre, it is possible that CAC may have become an investor in Hermes and proceeded with an indigenous small space plane design based on Dassault technology and consultation.  This may have resulted in a militarily useful PLA space plane by the late 1990s. 

Dassault Hermes space plane: Reportedly could have led to a PLA co-produced version, but its impact has continued in the Shenlong program.

China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) Tianjiao-1 Mini Shuttle.  CALT is now the China Carrier Rocket Research Institute under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. CALT’s Tianjiao-1 was a 20-25 ton space plane similar in size and concept to Dassault Hermes space plane program, and was expected to be completed by 2003. It was expected to have a crew of three though its payload may have only amounted to 2-3 tons.  It is conceivable that the Chengdu Aircraft Co. transferred Hermes data to CALT to aid its design development.  Tianjiao-1 would have been launched atop a new 4m diameter rocket booster larger than the 3.35m Long March-3 SLVs.  Like Hermes the Tianjiao-1 would have been reliant on its SLV to reach orbit. In 1998 a new version of the Tianjiao design appeared at a Chinese exhibit in the German city of Hannover.

Later Tianjiao-1 space plane concept: Displayed in Hannover in 1998.

Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST) Chang Cheng-1 Shuttle.  The largest design to emerge from the 869 Project was the Chang Cheng-1 (Great Wall-1) of the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology and the Aviation Ministry’s 640 Research Institute.  With a total launch weight of 1015 tons, its 24m long space plane orbiter would have weighted 94 tons.  It was intended to have a crew of two and up to three passengers and carry a 5ton payload.   It would be launched atop a new-design space launch vehicle using three parallel HT-1 rockets to an altitude of 176km.  Here, in contrast to the Tianjiao and the U.S. Shuttle, the Chang Cheng space plane would fire its large “second stage” engine to complete its flight to 200km x 500km orbit.[13]  This design required the space plane to carry fuel for a significant portion of its weight which in turn limited its payload. 

Chang Cheng-1 concept: Its influence on current proposals is apparent. Source: Chinese Internet

Recent China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology Space Plane Development

China has provided some insights into its approach to developing large RLVs in papers delivered to annual congresses of the International Astronautical Federation by engineers from the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT).  Founded in 1957 by Dr. Qian Xuesen, CALT is the premier manufacturer of China’s SLVs, has a reported 22,000 employees about half of which are technical personnel[14] and is subordinate to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).  It is likely that between 1995 and 2000, CALT was selected to lead the development of China’s large space planes.  This effort likely includes many other Chinese companies, institutes and universities, to include the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation, Northwestern Polytechnical University, the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Harbin Institute of Technology. 

First View of CALT’s LM RLV Space Plane Concept: This image of CALT’s space plane concept was revealed in 2006. Source: Chinese Internet

In a 2006 paper three engineers from CALT presented a “roadmap” for China’s development of RLVs.[15]  They make clear that a decision to build an RLV would depend on sufficient progress in technology development, to include aerothermodyamics, thermal protection systems, rocket propulsion and guidance navigation and control avionics.  Then a “First Generation,” RLV, called “LM RLV,” would see a choice between two partially reusable TSTO concepts.  The first concept would have a space plane launched by an expendable first stage of the 5m diameter Long March-5 SLV, expected start testing in 2014.  A second concept would use a reusable  suborbital hypersonic aircraft second stage that would in turn launch a smaller missile for placing small payloads into space.  At this conference, lead author Yong Yang told Flight International that the “First Generation” could be ready in 15 years, or by 2020.[16] 

This would be followed by a “Second Generation” that would utilize a reusable horizontal take-off and horizontal-landing (HTHL) first stage, that could use an air-breathing engine, which would launch the first space plane of the 1st Generation RVL.  This would be followed by a “Third Generation” HTHL that would use a single-stage to orbit (SSTO) space plane which would use advanced propulsion, advanced thermal protection and light weight structure, to achieve “high performance on reliability, flexibility, low cost, responsiveness.”  The ability to launch from a runway to space has been a long-standing aspiration of space powers but its difficulty was illustrated by the Reagan Administration’s SSTO X-30 “Orient Express” Aerospace Plane program, cancelled because of immature technology.

2006 CALT LM RLV Space Plane Image: This clearer image was included in CALT’s 2006 paper on its RLV roadmap. Source: CALT

More details are revealed about CALT’s First Generation LM RLVs than the later generations.  The first concept involves using the first stage of the yet-to-be tested Long March-5 SLV to boost a large space plane on its way to orbit.  A slightly different image of this concept was also released in 2006.  This concept is clearly descendent from the Chang Cheng-1 rocket-boosted space plane.  Like the Chang Cheng-1, the CALT concept would have the space plane’s mass devoted mainly to carrying fuel to provide a “second stage” boost into orbit.  CALT notes the total space plane + booster launch weight would be 700 tons.[17]  The Long March-5 in SLV configurations is marketed with a 675 lift-off mass.[18] The higher weight for the CALT LM RLV may be accounted for by larger side-boosters that may have to be developed for this program.  Illustrations indicate  the Long March-5 booster is to be only slightly longer than the space plane, with one paper suggesting the LM RLV space plane has a length of 32.5m.[19]  This analyst estimates that the weight of the LM RLV space plane would reach 120 to 140 tons, with most of this being fuel. 

2007 CALT RLV Image: This side view is from a 2007 paper by CALT engineers. Source: CALT

CALT credits this space plane concept with a payload of 7 tons, the consequence of having to carry so much fuel.  Like the Chang Cheng-1, the CALT space plane appears to have sufficient space to carry two pilots plus a relief crew of three for China’s Space Station—intended for a crew of three.  A 7 ton payload could also provide a useful amount of supplies for the Space Station, or that space could be used for additional crew or for many scientific/diplomatic or military missions. However, with such a small payload this space plane may not prove to be an efficient commercial space launcher and it could not transport large solid structures to China’s Space Station. 

Of some interest, the early 2006 concept image shows what appears to be a thin double-delta wing with a sharp angle, whereas the 2006 image of this RLV shows a more blended wing shape.  The angle, nonetheless, appears to be slightly less than that used by the U.S. Shuttle.  The 2005 wing shape suggests that CALT may have considered a higher angle of reentry or a slower and lower temperature reentry.  This would imply the CALT space plane’s thermal protection system would face less stress. The Space Shuttle was designed for a fast and hot reentry to enable a longer glide range to allow for greater flexibility in the event of an emergency recovery.  There has been additional development research on the LM RLV[20] but the status of this program is not known.

Estimated Space Plane Comparison
CALT LM RLV Space Plane (1)
U.S. Space Shuttle
Chang Cheng-1
Russian Buran
Wing span
Orbiter Weight
120-140 tons
110 tons
94 tons
105 tons
7 tons
24+ tons
5 tons
30 tons
Total Launch Weight
700 tons
2,000 tons
1,015 tons
2,379 to 2,419 tons
Lauch Mode
Single stack on top of LM-5 SLV first stage, boosted space plane “second stage” 
Twin solid rocket boosters on large fuel tank for 3x space plane mounted engines
3x joined HT-1 SLVs, plus boosted space plane stage
Mounted on side of Energia rocket booster
1.  Estimated data.
Sources:  Yong Yang et al., op-cit; Du Tao et. al., op-cit; Li Chenzi, op-cit; Bart Hendrickx and Bert Vis, Energia-Buran, The Soviet Space Shuttle, Chichester: Praxis, 2007, p. 462-463; press reports, author estimates.

The second CALT LM RLV concept would involve another rocket powered aircraft, but the key difference is that it would not be required to enter Low Earth Orbit. It is called “RBS” or reusable sub-orbit vehicle.  It is not clear whether this vehicle would in turn also use the new Long March-5 as a first stage, but the aircraft would launch vertically and have a launch mass of 100 tons.  It would then approach a modest hypersonic speed, said to be less than Mach 10, and then launch a smaller SLV that could place a 1 ton payload into orbit.  It is not clear whether this craft would be manned or unmanned, but the later seems more likely.  This concept apparently has some support.  Engineers from Northwestern Polytechnical University, a major locus of space plane and hypersonics research, noted that the reusable sub orbital launch vehicle “suffers less severe flight environment, and is more realistic for near future launch vehicle development.”[21]

RBS RLV: A “hybrid” suborbital reusable launch vehicle might be developed faster. Source: CALT

Shenlong Update

In December 2007, an unofficial image posted on a Chinese web page revealed the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Shenlong space plane program.[22] However, unknown to this analyst, in their 2006 paper CALT engineers, while not identifying its name, had revealed that as part of the RLV research program, “Several experimental vehicles will be developed to demonstrate and validate the key technologies, system architecture and operation in representative flight environment, and complement the ground-testing of the technologies.” The paper then went on explain there would be two “flight demonstrations.”  The first would serve to test automatic landing systems and would involve dropping a test vehicle from an aircraft at an altitude of 4km.  A second test would be a “Hypersonic re-entry flight demonstration” that would entail launching the test vehicle on a Long March LM-2C SLV to a sub orbital altitude of 100km to achieve a reentry speed of Mach 15. This would test key technologies like its thermal protection system and its guidance, navigation and control (GNC) algorithm at a hypersonic speed.[23]

First Shenlong Image: Released in December 2007 to coincide with the birthday of Qian Xuesen, it is likely from a 2005 drop test flight. Source: Chinese Internet

It is possible that the later hypersonic launch has taken place.  On 8 January 2011 state-controlled Shaanxi City television news program covered Acting Provincial Governor Zhao Zhengyong’s 7 January 2011 visit to aerospace concerns in the X’ian High Tech Zone, to tout the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) high-priority mantra of “civil-military integration.”[24] During his visit to Northwestern Polytechnical University’s (NPU) School of Materials and Science Engineering, Zhao was briefed by one of China’s top experts on advanced ceramic matrix composite (CMC) materials, Professor Zhang Litong, who was shown explaining NPU’s contributions to the Shenlong. The Shaanxi TV report then flashed a panel that read, “Successful trans-atmospheric vehicle test flight.”[25]  

Back in the news: A poster from NPU Professor Zhang Litong’s briefing for a politician, which prompted a Shaanxi TV station to disclose for the first time that the Shenlong space plane, first revealed in 2007, had made a “test flight.” Source: Shaanxi TV

While there were no additional details mentioned, for many Chinese this revelation on the eve of the 9-12 January 2011 visit to Beijing by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates served to accentuate another “show of force” --  the 11 January 2011 “official” first flight of the Chengdu Aviation Corporation’s (CAC) “J-20” 5th generation jet fighter.  The Shenlong’s primary purpose may have been to prove new space plane and hypersonic technologies, and the possibility of a successful test means that China is making progress toward its goal of building space planes. In December 2007, Wen Wei Po cited senior Academician Zhuang Fenggan, at the time a high-profile advocate for a Chinese space planes, as noting that a space plane test flight would occur in the 11th Five Year Plan, or by 2010.[26]  A successful test coming at the end of the 11th Five Year Plan could represent sufficient progress to warrant the PLA proceeding with a decision on a type of space plane to build. 

Air Launched Shenlong: This computer graphic of a Shenlong being launched from an H-6 bomber was aired on a November 2008 CCTV program. Source: CCTV

It is interesting how the development of the Shenlong, most likely a product of the Chengdu Aircraft Co. and CALT, has mirrored that of the Boeing X-37B “dual use” space plane program that started in 1999.[27]  A 2008 Chinese television program suggested that the Shenlong may have made its first unpowered glide test in 2005,[28] whereas the X-37A’s first unpowered glide test was scheduled for 2005, but was delayed to the following year.  This would also raise the possibility that the Shenlong program started at least in 2001, the beginning of the 10th Five Year Plan. In dialogue on a popular Chinese websites following the January 8, 2011 Shaanxi TV program, posters offered differing comparative dimensions for the Shenlong, with one poster citing a smaller size and later poster referred to a “SL2,” or perhaps a “Shenlong-2,” with a slightly larger size.[29] This suggests the possibility that a smaller version was used for low-speed glide tests and a slightly larger version may be used for orbital flights, again similar to the X-37 program. However, that is speculation in the absence of official Chinese government disclosures on the Shenlong.

1. Data for Shenlong based on informal data and is speculative.
Sources:  Chinese web sites cited in the article.

Possible Comparison: CAC Shenlong and Boeing X-37B
Shenlong (1)
Mission Technology demonstrator that could transition to military mission capable space plane.
Weight 3 tons (empty) to 4.8 tons or 5.1 tons to 7.5 tons (loaded)
4.9 tons
8.6m or 9.9m
LM-3C space launch vehicle or H-6 bomber
Atlas-V SLV
Main Contractor
Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute: overall design, ground control; China Aerospace Corporation: manufacturing; Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics: control system; Harbin Institute of Technology: thermal protection; Northwestern Polytechnical University: thermal protection; Northwest University: satellite navigation system 
Boeing Corporation
Program Starts
Program Starts 2001, but program heritage dates to 1980s access to French Dassault Hermes program.
First Unpowered Flight
April 7, 2006
First Space Flight
2009 or 2010 but suborbital
April 22-December3, 2010

The space-rated X-37B flew for the first time from 22 April to 3 December 2010, and started its second mission on 5 March 2011.  However, it is not clear whether the Shenlong also flew first in 2010, or perhaps earlier. After the 7 January 2011 Shaanxi TV program, a Chinese web poster suggested the Shenlong had been boosted by a liquid-fueled Long March space launch vehicle, in a manner similar to the X-37B’s use of a liquid-fueled Atlas-V space launch vehicle. Doing so would entail less expense and less risk for the untested space plane, ensuring recovery on Chinese territory. It is reasonable to expect that a longer orbital Shenlong flight could occur in 2011 or 2012 to further advance technology validation or test military capabilities. 

Space Planes and Future PLA Space Warfare Ambitions

China has long demonstrated its commitment to building space warfare capabilities and it should be no surprise that future space planes will also benefit the PLA, as they will enhance China civil-space capabilities.  While he was Chief of the General Armaments Department, which currently controls China’s manned and unmanned space program for the PLA, it is likely that General Chen Bingde played a key role in China’s decision to undertake a series of anti-satellite (ASAT) interceptor tests that culminated in the successful 11 January 2007 destruction of a Chinese weather satellite by an SC-19 interceptor.  Chen’s likely willingness to use force in space did not harm his promotion to Chief of the General Staff Department (GSD) in 2007, and he could rise to higher office, perhaps following his predecessor as the next Minister of Defense.  As GSD Chief, Chen would also have been responsible for ordering the development of new strategies/doctrines, such as the October-November 2009 PLA Air Force explaining of their new strategies “integrating air and space.” A November 2009 article reported that China Strategy Institute member Jiang Feng stated the “next step’ of the Chinese Air Force is to “focus” on “developing” “assassin satellites, laser interceptor satellites, etc.” This report further states, “It is reported that China's air force is currently also working hard to develop a new model orbital bomber.”[30] PLA interest in a “space bomber” is also indicated in Chinese engineering literature.[31]

General Chen Bingde: An experienced space warrior who apparently is an advocate for greater military space capabilities, Chen could rise to higher office and expand PLA space warfare capabilities. Source: Chinese Internet

CALT’s First Generation LM RLV concepts could fulfill a number of military missions.  Depending on its residual fuel capacity after reaching orbit, the CALT space plane might be able to vary its altitude as well as effect changes in orbital direction to be able to intercept targets of choice.  Its payload bay would seem sufficient to carry small kinetic kill vehicles (KKVs) for ASAT missions, or small laser or microwave weapons that could disable a satellite without creating debris.  Again, depending on its fuel capacity and the effectiveness of its thermal protection system, the CALT space plane may be able to briefly reenter the atmosphere to conduct surveillance or even ground attack missions, and then reenter orbit to better evade interception. The capability to reenter the atmosphere, even if for a brief period at the upper edges of the atmosphere, could enable this space plane to effect “synergetic plane change,” or the ability to change orbits.[32] Using the atmosphere to allow space plane aerodynamic surfaces to change orbits also saves fuel that could be used to regain a required LEO altitude. This could enable this space plane to attack multiple targets in a single mission.

But CALT’s sub-orbital RSB RLV might also prove attractive to the PLA, as it could form the basis for an early hypersonic strike vehicle, relying on more readily available rocket engines instead of waiting for more exotic scramjet or combined cycle engines.  The rocket-based second stage could launch surveillance micro satellites or multiple KKVs.  The RSB RLV might also use that same missile to attack distant ground targets at hypersonic speeds.  In addition, it might use a future small laser or microwave weapon package to attack LEO targets.

To transition to a military-mission capable platform the Shenlong would have to be large enough to carry fuel for maneuvering and a useful payload; demonstrate the ability to perform in-orbit tasks; self-recover near a space launch site; and, re-launch in a short period of time.  There are indications that like the X-37B, the Shenlong could in the future be equipped with a folding solar energy array to prolong its orbital missions. China has already developed robotic manipulator arms for out space usage,[33] and a smaller version could see use on a military Shenlong. Depending on the size of its payload a military-mission Shenlong could perform passive reconnaissance missions against other space objects or ground targets, undertake active missions against both, or perform maintenance on and refueling of PLA satellites. 

Professor Zhang Litong and Space Cooperation With China

China’s efforts to develop space plane and hypersonic military platforms also provides an example of the risks of American cooperation with China in space, as illustrated by the case of Professor Zhang Litong.  It was Prof. Zhang’s January 7 briefing which led to the most recent information update on the Shenlong.  In China’s world of high-prestige engineering leadership, Zhang has been lauded as a “heroine” and “a scholar though more like a general” and since 1995 has been a rare female member of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Engineering.[34] Professor Zhang and her School of Materials Science and Engineering epitomize the CCP’s quest for broad “civil-military integration,” and in particular, the CCP’s determination that much of China’s aerospace universities and programs be mobilized to serve PLA modernization goals. Professor Zhang has mainly pursued military directed and funded research at Northwestern Polytechnic University since her graduation there in 1961.  Her early work apparently focused on developing high temperature casting techniques to develop new alloys for aircraft engines, and she was actively involved in the PLA’s unsuccessful post-1976 attempt to reverse-engineer the British Rolls Royce Spey turbofan engine.[35] 

Professor Zhang Litong: Having gained critical insights from NASA, this prominent engineer-warrior went home to help develop weapons that could be used against the United States in space. She is seen in her January 8 Shaanxi City TV appearance, on the left, showing officials what appears to be a new thermal protection material. Source: Chinese Internet

But in 1987 Zhang’s career took a new turn when she was asked to devise a plan to enable China to produce world class ceramic matrix composites (CMC)[36] likely to support the decision made by 862-204 Program to pursue space plane development. To accelerate this effort it Zhang was given a windfall: access to a key laboratory run by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during the “happy time” of tentative U.S.-Chinese strategic cooperation in the 1980s.  While the circumstances are not clear, given the Chinese government’s interest in her ability to develop new CMCs, it stand to reason that Chinese diplomatic and intelligence resources may have been involved in securing this access for Zhang.  Just as the Tiananmen uprising was gathering in April 1989, Zhang secured a Senior Visiting Fellow position via NASA’s Center for Commercial Development, at a laboratory associated with the Lewis (now John Glenn) Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.  The Glenn Center has long been a major contributor to U.S. advanced research on new materials and structures for space applications.[37] Despite the U.S. 1989 Tiananmen Embargo on all military technologies to China, Professor Zhang remained associated with NASA’s Lewis Center until 1991, where she pursued research on CMCs, aided Chinese and other graduate students, and won high praise from U.S. colleagues for her efficiency.  At one point she even turned down a monetary reward from an American colleague, noting that Chinese place a higher value on “friendship.”[38]

However, affirming that Zhang’s first loyalty was to China, some of her bios note, “With the same strong desire to serve the Motherland, and with her foreign research, she returned to NPU in January 1991.”[39] Zhang’s bio makes clear her time with the NASA lab aided her development[40] of “world class” CMCs by 1998, which was credited with having circumvented the “embargo.”[41] In March 2005 she received a National Science and Technology Award from Premier Wen Jiabao.[42] Under Zhang’s leadership, NPU gained a prestigious “National Key Laboratory” on Thermostructural Research. Research by Zhang and her colleagues has been applied to the thermal protection system on the Shenlong space plane[43]  and is likely aiding NPU’s other work to support future PLA hypersonic and trans-atmospheric combat platforms.  Professor Zhang has also cooperated with the nearby Shenyang Aircraft Corporation to develop new CMC materials to support next generation aero engines with greater than 10-to-1 thrust ratios, an effort influenced by recent U.S. efforts to develop new engines with far greater thrust and efficiency than current 5th gen engines.[44]  More recent research by Zhang and her NPU colleagues has focused on CMCs with carbon nano-tubes,[45] which Chinese planners have identified as useful in creating materials that have stealth properties and can shield weapons and structures from future microwave weapons.[45]

During the 1980s, the former Soviet Union’s zeal to match the U.S. Shuttle program with its similar Buran space plane contributed to that regime’s economic collapse.  Now it is the turn of the United States to determine how it can respond to serious economic turmoil without making hasty reductions in military and science spending that could invite new threats. China’s Communist Party dictatorship has proven far more resilient than the Soviet Communist Party, as it has also proven its willingness to devote greater resource to the construction of a globally capable military power. China apparently is also intent on building a future “space architecture” that will better enable it to exert control over the “Earth-Moon System.”  Space planes could be an important part of this architecture. While the U.S. intelligence community most likely is able to monitor China’s increasingly militarized space program, the Obama Administration appears far more interested in pursuing space cooperation with China, which could in itself prove dangerous, instead of investing in future U.S. military-space capabilities that may soon be needed to deter evolving PLA space combat systems.

[1] As noted in, Zhuang Jingqian, “Beijing Observation: Chinese Air Force Quickens Pace of Strategic Transition, Possibly by Taking Two Steps,” Zhongguo Tongxun She, November 10, 2009 OSC Translation; For discussions of the new Air Force strategy also see, Sun Maoqing, Xu Zhuangzhi and Li Xuanliang, “60th Anniversary of Founding of PLAAF--Expert Interpretation, PLAAF Begins To Realize Five Major System Advances,” Xinhua, November 11, 2009, OCS Translation; Yang Minqing, "Chinese Air Force's New Strategy and New Security Concept", Liaowang (published by Xinhua), November 20, 2009, OSC Translation; Liu Yueshan, "Air Force Combat Strength Boosted To Adapt to Three-Dimensional Operations,” Wen Wei Po Online, November 21, 2009, OSC Translation.

[2] For biographies of Zhuang following his death see, “Zhuang Fenggan…,” Web Page, October 11, 2010,; “Remembering China Aerospace Aerodynamics pioneer Zhuang Fenggan,” China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation Web Page, November 17, 2010,

[3] T.A. Heppenhiemer, Facing the Heat Barrier: A History of Hypersonics, NASA: The NASA History Series, 2007, p. x.

[4] Mark Wade, “Tsien Spaceplane 1949,” Encyclopedia Astronautica,

[5] Mark Wade, Tsien Spaceplane 1978,” Encyclopedia Astronautica,

[6] The most comprehensive Chinese history of the 863-204 program is by Li Chengzi and Zheng Xiaoqi (Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics), “The Debate Over Placing Priority on the Space Shuttle or Manned Spacecraft During Consideration of China’s Manned Space Program,” Science and Technology Review, Submitted August 2009.

[7] For an excellent history of the Tupolev bureau’s supersonic and hypersonic programs see, Valery Solozobov, Alexander Slobodchikov, Mikhail Kazakov, Vladimir Rigmant, “Tupolev Hypersonic,”

[8] Unknown author, “Space Plane and 869 Plans,” posted on the blog of an apparent senior professor of the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (BUAA),

[9] Li Chengzi, op-cit.

[10] A story recounted on Chinese military web pages is also told by Bai Wei, “Tale of the Vigorous Dragon,” Air Forces Monthly, May 2011, p. 86. The Mirage-2000 was soon rejected largely due to its high cost and the PLA selected the less expensive Russian Sukhoi Su-27 when it became available at the end of the 1980s.

[11] Li Chengzi, op-cit.

[12] For an exhaustive history of the Hermes program see, “Hermes, the unfinished space plane,”

[13] Chang Cheng-1 data from Li Chengzi, op-cit.

[14] CALT web page, In 1993 CALT was sanctioned by the U.S. government for its sale of missile technology to Pakistan.

[15] Yong Yang, Defeng Hu and Menglun Yu (China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology), “Roadmap of Long March Reusable Launch Vehicle,” 57th International Astronautical Congress, Hyderabad, India, 2006, IAC-06-D2.4.03.

[16] Rob Coppinger, “First RLV by 2020?,” Flight International, October 17, 2006.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “LM-5,” Brochure from the Great Wall Industries Corporation obtained at the 2011 Paris Airshow.

[19] Gong An Long and Zhou Wei Jiang (China Academy of Aerospace Dynamics), “Study on Correlation of Hypersonic Viscous Interaction,” 59th International Astronautical Congress, Glasgow, Scotland, 2008, IAC-08.C2.1.18.

[20] Du Tao and Yang Yong (CALT), “Aerothermodynamics Research for Long March Resuable Launch Vehicle,” 57th International Astronautical Congress, Hyderabad, India, 2006 IAC-07-D2.5.09.

[21] Dr. Chunlin Gong, Prof. Liangshan Gu and Mr. Hua Su (Northwestern Polytechnical University), “High-Fidelity Model Based Multi-Disciplinary Optimization for Suborbital Reusable Launch Vehicle,” for the 61st International Astronautical Congress, Prague, 2010, IAC-10.D1.3.6.

[22] Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “Shenlong Space Plane Advances China’s Military Space Potential,” International Assessment and Strategy Center Web Page, December 17, 2007,

[23] Yong et al., op-cit.

[24] Acting Governor Zhao Zhengyong visited the NPU School of Materials and Science Engineering, the 4th Academy of the China Aerospace Corporation, which is responsible for solid fuel motors for PLA missiles, and the X’ian Aircraft Corporation’s First Design Institute, which designs large civil and military aircraft. A video of this visit can be accessed by this link: An official report of Zhao’s visit was written by, Wu Dengchang, “The the aerospace industry and research Zhao stressed, Promote the integration of and expansion of military and civil aerospace industry,” Shaanxi Provincial Communist Party Web Page, January 7, 2011, Other web pages used this information on the television report to announce the test of the space plane, see “China’s space plane has been successfully tested…,” Web Page, January 10, 2011,

[25] “The first exposure of the domestic space fighter,” Ming Pao, January 11, 2011,

[26] “Domestic space plane test flight in three years,” Wen Wei Po, December 12, 2007, Http://

[27] Boeing was the prime contractor for building the X-37 but worked with several NASA laboratories, see: “X-37 Demonstrator Future Launch Technologies In Orbit and in Reentry Environment,” NASA Facts, May 2003,

[28] “CCTV, China’s space weapons production: “Shenlong” space plane,” Web Page, November 15, 2008,

[29] The smaller Shenlong dimensions were posted on the popular CJDBY website on January 9 ; and the larger dimensions on the Top81 website on January 10, 2011

[30] Liu Yueshan, op-cit.

[31] Possible PLA interest in a “space bomber” using kinetic weapons to attack ground targets is indicated by a several academic-engineering articles: Hu Zheng-dong, Guo,Tsai Hung (Department of Aerospace Material Engineering, National University of Defense Technology), “Analytical predictive guidance technology for combat reentry of space based kinetic energy weapons,” Journal of Astronautics, V.30 (2009), N. 3, pgs. 1039-1044; Shen Shi-lu, Feng Shu-xu and Xu Xue-feng, “Analysis of the operational capability and feasibility of the space-to-ground kinetic weapon,” Journal of the Academy of Equipment Command & Technology, V. 17 (2006), N. 1, pgs. 33-37; Ren Zhang and Yuan Gong-xiong, “Study on reentry guidance technique for orbital weapons fighting cabin,” Aerospace Control, v. 23 (2005), N. 2, pgs 4 -7; Yuan Gong-xiong and Ren Zhang. “Reentry guidance laws of space based ground attack weapon system,” Control Technology of Tactical Missile, V.46 (2004), N.3, pgs. 72-76.

[32] The author would like to thank James Howe for this observation.

[33] In 2002 the 502 Research Institute of the China Academy of Space Technology had developed such a robitic arm, see, Wei Long, “Chinese Robotic Arm Seeks Employment on ISS,” Space, December 2, 2002,

[34] For accounts of Zhang’s career see, “Record of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, Northwestern Polytechnic University, Professor Zhang and her creative team.,” on the Chinese Chamber of Commerce for Import and Export of Machinery and Electronics Products (CCCME) Web Page, March 28, 2005,; her Chinese Academy of Engineering biography, “CAE Member Zhang Litong: Ceaseless Creation and Constant Improvement,” Chinese Academy of Engineering Web Page, December 11, 2008,; Zhang’s biography is also featured on list of heroes of Chinese high technology on the website of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), posted September 10, 2009,

[35] This effort is covered in, “Chinese woman of the academy overcomes difficulties with shuttle tiles,” Web Page, November 24, 2006, In 1998 the PLA gave up this attempt and made a deal with Rolls Royce to purchase the technology necessary to put the Spey into production at the X’ian Aeroengine Company by 2002. Called the Qinling, it powers the X’ian JH-7A attack fighter, and longstanding reports indicate that a more powerful Qinling-2 is under development, perhaps to power a new stealthier version of the JH-7.

[36] CAE bio, op-cit.

[37] “Structures and Materials Division,” Glenn Research Center Web Page,

[38] Zhang’s experience at the NASA Lewis Center is best covered in, “Chinese woman of the academy…,” op-cit., and in her CCME biography.

[39] CCCME and MIIT bios, op-cit.

[40] MIIT bio, op-cit.

[41] bio, op-cit.

[42] MIIT bio, op-cit.

[43] Yani Zhang, Litong Zhang, Laifei Cheng, Hui Mei, Qingqing Ke, Yongdong Xu (National Key Laboratory of Thermostructure composite materials, Northwestern Polytechnical University), “Fundamental issues of applications of C/SiC composites for re-entry vehicles,” Journal of Ceramic Processing Research. Vol. 10, No. 3, pp. 248~256 (2009),

[44] “Interview with Academician Zhang Li-tong,” Aero Engine (published by the Shenyang Institute of Engine Design), No. 2, 2008; a portion of this interview was posted on the CJDBY Web page on January 10, 2011,

[45] Hua Zhou, Xueyuan Tang, Yanming Dong, Lifu Chen, Litong Zhang, Wenrong Wang and Xiaopeng Xiong, “Multiwalled carbon nanotube/polyacrylonitrile composite fibers prepared by in situpolymerization,” Journal of Applied Polymer Science, Volume 120, Issue 3, 5 May 2011, Pages: 1385–1389.

[46] See Du Shanyi, “Ceramic Materials: “Fifth” Experience,” in blog posting, “Eleventh Five Year” Plan 863 new materials field, advanced ceramic (structure) materials development strategy,”, December 30, 2009,

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