DFH Episode 2 – China’s Long March to Commercial Launch

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China has a long and winding history of commercial launch services. Having launched their first satellite in 1970, China developed a commercial launch industry in the 1980s and 1990s, launching foreign satellites (including a handful of American ones, which were made politically possible by the 1986 Challenger Disaster, and subsequent decision by the US to stop flying commercial satellites on the Space Shuttle). Over the course of the late 1980s and 1990s, China’s commercial launch industry picked up some international market share and was seeing initial signs of success, but this all changed with multiple failures in the mid-1990s, namely Apstar-2 and Intelsat-708. The two failures–both involving American-made satellites–led to the United States barring the launch of sensitive American technology on Chinese rockets, with this meaning no American-made satellites, and indeed few European-made ones, could launch on Chinese rockets.

This turning point caused China to focus on developing turnkey space solutions for export, that is, building the satellite, launch vehicle, and all assorted hardware and technical services. This model has seen some success, with China having exported rocket launches and satellites to countries including Pakistan, Nigeria, and Venezuela. However, it has faced challenges, including the relatively limited market size for $300M turnkey satellites.

Partly as a result, and partly because of increasing innovation coming from the west, China has opened its space industry to more commercial companies and investors, and in no vertical has this been more apparent than launch. While China’s most advanced commercial launch companies are only just now reaching the point of providing commercial launch services, we are likely to see more activity from these companies in the future.

References:

[1] An incredible YouTube video of the Intelsat 708 launch failure and aftermath, seemingly filmed by American employees of Hughes/SSL that were present in Sichuan for the launch in the mid-1990s. The spectacular fireball at the beginning is the highlight, but the rest of the video gives an interesting look into China at that time, with the quiz at the end providing a bizarre, and at times slightly uncomfortable look into the US in the 1990s.
[2] Further reading on Intelsat 708
[3] Even further reading on Intelsat-708, written by perhaps the most exceptional Russia space analyst around, Anatoly Zak.
[4] Discussion on the impact of export controls/The Cox Report on the relationship between the United States and China in the context of space (pg. 368 of document)
[5] Bryce Space Infographic from June 2020 of China Orbital Launch Activity
[6] Euroconsult China report brochure with 1-2 charts of fundraising for Chinese commercial space Partial/not up-to-date list of international/ commercial launch and satellite orders performed by CGWIC
[7] Summary of H1 2020 in China commercial space written by Blaine Curcio, which includes more detailed discussion on the recent activities of Expace, the CASIC commercial launch subsidiary.
[8] Interesting interview from 2018 with Yang Yiqiang, the head of the Long March 11 program, about China’s commercial space ambitions.
[9] History of the Long March rockets, as told by Scott Manley.
[10] Thoughts on the “Hype” about China’s NewSpace Launcher Startups – Part 1 & Part 2, written by Jean Deville in late 2019


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