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Chinese launch vehicles

Chinese launch vehicles for human spaceflight projects. From left: Tsien Spaceplane Launcher, 1978; Project 921 Launch Vehicle, 1992; CZ-2F, 1999; CZ-2E(A), 2000. Only the last two were put into full-scale development.

A model of a Chinese Shuttle craft

A model of a Chinese Shuttle craft, a resuable launch vehicle, was displayed at the Chinese Pavilion, at the Hannover Expo 2000.

The L-4S, the first Japanese orbital launch vehicle

The L-4S, the first Japanese orbital launch vehicle.

South African/Israeli space launch vehicle

Israel and South Africa collaborated closely in rocket technology in the 1970s and 1980s. Using technology from both, they developed two space launchers for the "R5b" space program.

Foreign Launch Vehicles


Besides the United States and Russia, five countries or international agencies possess satellite launch vehicles. They are the European Space Agency (ESA), China, Japan, India, and Israel. One other country, Brazil, is close to acquiring the capability to launch satellites. Most of these countries or organizations (along with the United States and Russia) offer their launch services on a commercial basis to other countries and corporations. Although the satellite launch market boomed in the late 1990s, more recently, a reduced commercial demand for communications, remote sensing, and navigation satellites has dampened hopes for a bustling launch vehicle industry.


The launch vehicle that dominates the commercial satellite launch market internationally is ESA's Ariane, a stellar example of a successful international collaborative project much like another European success story, the Airbus passenger aircraft. Ariane has developed five major families of launch vehicles: Ariane 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. The earliest, Ariane 1, made its first flight in December 1979. Most current launches use the Ariane 5, which made its first commercial launch in December 1999.


China has also developed a wide array of launch vehicles, some of which it offers on a commercial basis via the China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC), a Chinese foreign trading company that was established in October 1980. Since 1970, China has developed 16 different launch vehicle models that have been launched nearly 80 times. Chinese attempts to commercially sell its launch vehicles have been thwarted by a well-publicized launch failure in February 1996 that killed civilians on the ground. There have also been concerns about Chinese appropriation of Western technology, which led to a U.S. embargo on commercial satellite launches using Chinese rockets.


Like the United States and Russia, China's early launch vehicles were all derived from military ballistic missiles. The first Chinese launch vehicle was the Chang Zheng 1 (CZ-1 or “Long March 1”), an improved version of the Dong Feng 3 military rocket. This launch vehicle put the first Chinese satellite into orbit in 1970. China was the fifth nation (after the Soviet Union, the United States, France, and Japan) to accomplish this feat.


The two-stage CZ-2 design was based on the Dong Feng 5 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). There have been at least six major versions of the CZ-2, whose first launch was in November 1974. Most of these are available for commercial launches. The most powerful is the CZ-2E with a capability to put as much as 9.2 tons into Earth orbit. Perhaps the most famous CZ-2 rocket is the CZ-2F, a three-stage vehicle intended to launch the first Chinese astronauts into space on board the Shen Zhou spaceship. It was first launched in November 1999. Since 1974, there have been 35 CZ-2-related launches of which only three have failed.


The CZ-3 is an improved CZ-2 with the addition of a third stage. The CZ-3, first launched in January 1984, was capable of putting about 1.4 tons to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO). In April 1990, the CZ-3 launched the Hong Kong-owned AsiaSat-1 communications satellite into space, inaugurating commercial operations using Chinese rockets. Later versions have included the CZ-3A, the CZ-3B, and the CZ-3C. The CZ-3A, introduced in February 1994, included a new third stage using high-performance liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. The most powerful of the CZ-3 family is the CZ-3B, which adds a fourth stage and has a capability to put about 5 tons into GTO. China has carried out 24 CZ-3-related launches since 1984. Four of these were failures.


The three-stage CZ-4A, a new generation of launch vehicles, was first launched in September 1988. Since then, the Chinese have introduced a second variant, the CZ-4B, first flown in May 1999. The CZ-4B can put about 1.5 tons to GTO. These launchers use toxic storable propellants and were developed to orbit domestic scientific and weather satellites. There have been six launches of CZ-4-related rockets, all of them successful.


Japan has two agencies that develop launch vehicles, the Institute of Space and Aeronautical Sciences (ISAS) and the National Space Development Agency (NASDA). It was one of the ISAS launch vehicles, the solid propellant Lambda L-4S, that launched the first Japanese satellite into orbit in 1970. Later ISAS launchers have included the M-4S (introduced in 1970), M-3C (in 1974), M-3H (in 1977), M-3S (in 1980), and M-3SII (in 1985) rockets that have launched a wide range of scientific satellites into space. All of these use solid propellants. More recently, ISAS has developed the M-5 (or M-V) launch vehicle that has a capability to place about two tons into low-Earth-orbit. The M-5, which was launched for the first time in February 1997, is used for deep space missions in addition to scientific missions to Earth orbit.


NASDA's early launch vehicles such as the N-I and N-II were derived from the American Delta rocket. Later launch vehicles such as the H-I and H-II were indigenously developed for launching large applications satellites into orbit. Both use high-performance cryogenic propellants. The first H-II was launched in February 1994, after a two-year delay resulting from technical problems in the first-stage engine. NASDA is currently testing the new H-IIA rocket that will be the next generation of operational Japanese launch vehicle. The basic H-IIA is capable of launching about two tons into geostationary orbit, while uprated versions are expected to have a four-ton capability. The first H-IIA was launched in August 2001.


NASDA and ISAS also jointly developed the solid-propellant J-1 satellite launch vehicle using available technology from each other's launch vehicles (the solid booster of the H-II combined with the upper stage of the M-3SII). The J-1 was launched for the first time in February 1996.


India used its small solid-propellant four-stage Satellite Launch Vehicle-3 (SLV-3) rocket to launch its first satellite, the 90-pound (40 kilogram) Rohini-1B into orbit in 1980. The technology for the SLV-3 was derived in part from the American light Scout launch vehicles of the 1960s. After four SLV-3 launches, India produced an improved SLV-3 known as the Advanced SLV (or ASLV) that was launched four times between 1987 and 1994. Two of these orbital attempts failed. India then developed the five-stage Polar SLV (or PSLV) to launch remote sensing satellites into sun-synchronous orbit. The PSLV comprised a four-stage core surrounded by six strap-on boosters derived from the ASLV. The rocked used a mix of liquid- and solid-propellant rocket stages. Although the first PSLV launch in September 1993 failed, the subsequent five orbital launches have been somewhat successful.


India's major program in the 1990s has been the development of the three-stage (plus strap-ons) Geostationary SLV (or GSLV), which would be capable of placing about 2.5 tons into GTO. Liquid propellants power all the stages besides the first stage core. Russia is providing the key third stage that uses high-performance cryogenic propellants. India is also developing an indigenous cryogenic stage to replace the Russian one for operation by 2005. The first launch of the GSLV in April 2001 was a success, but initial launches may not attain the promised capability of 2.5 tons to GTO.


Israel's Shavit (or “Comet”) launch vehicle lifted its Offeq satellite into orbit in 1988. The Shavit is a small three-stage solid-propellant rocket derived from the Jericho 2 ballistic missile developed by Israeli Aircraft Industries.


Brazil has been attempting to develop a satellite launch vehicle, the VLS, for some time. The VLS is a four-stage rocket using solid propellants. Much of the technology for the VLS was derived from early Brazilian Sonda-class sounding rockets. Two orbital attempts of the VLS in 1997 and 1999 failed, but Brazil continues preparing for further launches.


-Asif Siddiqi



Baker, David, ed. Jane's Space Directory, 2001-2002. Couldson, UK: Jane's Publishing Group, 2001.

Johnson, Nicholas L. and Rodvold, David. Europe and Asia in Space, 1991-1992. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Air Force Phillips Laboratory, 1993.

________________. Europe and Asia in Space, 1993-1994. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Air Force Phillips Laboratory, 1995.


On-Line References:

“Go Taikonauts – Launch Vehicle.” http://www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/Launchpad/1921/launch.htm

“Gunter's Space Page-Information on Launch Vehicles, Satellites, Space Shuttle and Astronautics.” http://www.skyrocket.de/space/index2.htm

“Indian Space Program.” http://www.geocities.com/indian_space_story/rocketpslv

“Japanese Launch Vehicles.” http://spaceboy.nasda.go.jp/note/Rocket/E/roc11_e.html

“SpaceRef – Companies and Commerce-Launch Vehicles-Ariane.” http://www.spaceref.com/directory/companies_and_commerce/launch_vehicles/ariane/


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Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 8

Students will develop an understanding of the attributes of design.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 9

Students will develop an understanding of engineering design.

National Council for Geographic Education

Standard 1

How to use maps and other geographic representations to acquire and process information.