Launch Site of Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, Inner Mongolia, China. The early morning sun is low over the horizon where the blue sky meets the Gobi Desert.
In the test command hall, Li Bing, deputy station manager of the launch test station (hereinafter referred to as the test station), is staring at the rocket trajectory curve on the screen. As the message of “the mission was a complete success” in both Chinese and French appears on the big screen in real time, Li’s shows a relaxed look on his formerly tight face due to days of hard work for preparation. And the same thing happens to Zhang Zhifen, director of the center; Zheng Yonghuang, chief engineer of the center; Gao Minzhong, chief engineer of the testing station; Tan Hongyi, chief model engineer of the testing station; Liu Yongli, deputy director of the command and control station (hereinafter referred to as the command station); Sun Rui, engineer of the optical measurement team of the command station; Jiang Wei, head of the USB system and equipment of the command station. Li Ting, a female doctor in the technology department, is receiving telemetry data from colleague Xu Shengtao on the data analysis platform she has developed, so as to quickly generate a complete analysis report of the task.
In 2018, they successfully launched 64 satellites into space, setting many new records for China’s space launches. And they all come from the same school, NUDT.
Open up Virgin Soil
Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center (JSLC), also known as Dongfeng Aerospace City, is located in an oasis deep in the Gobi Desert, which was just a vast Gobi Desert 60 years ago.
In 1955, when Qian Xuesen visited PLA Military Academy of Engineering (Hereinafter referred to as Harbin Military Academy of Engineering), Chen Geng, the President of the school, asked him if China could develop missiles. “Yes,” he said. Two years and six months later, in the Qingshantou Area of Ejin Banner, Inner Mongolia, China’s first land integrated Missile Test Range was established – and later the famous Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, where the first missile and the first man-made satellite of new China were launched.
“The blue sky is our tent and the ground our bed, on the bank of the Black River we build up barracks, where three stones are piled up to support a pot, and the salted vegetables are to go with the dry food.” This is a true description of the life when the Range was built. It’s hard during the startup, but even harder to build a team that can carry out the test. Given the poor conditions of the range, will any talents be willing to come?
Sure! As soon as they graduate form the Harbin Military Academy of Engineering, they apply for a position in the Range. Every one of them remembers Chen Geng’s dialogue with Qian, “The weak are bullied and the weak are beaten. Since China must develop missile on its own, let’s start it from our generation!”
Nowadays, people may find it hard to imagine how hard the conditions of the Range might be. During those days, they slept in the ground and ate only cabbage. The dry wind and sand made people nosebleed. When the yellow sand was raging, their faces were covered with dust. The night was cold they would shiver, and the most unbearable was the endless desolation and loneliness of the desert.
Gobi may be desolate, but their life was full of meaning. When the Range was first built, it started from scratch. At that time, few people had ever seen a missile. The school’s graduates eagerly learned about missiles and launch knowledge from Soviet experts, working day and night on their favorite job. It doesn’t matter that the conditions were so difficult: a jar of water could be used in three times, first to wash face, then to brush teeth, and finally to wash feet; when time was not enough, they just tried hard to manage it. Sometimes they were so tired that they would fall asleep with the food in their hands.
These young people who had graduated from the top military colleges in China at that time, showed a spirit of fighting without fearing difficulties and dared rise to any challenges. They mastered the most knowledge and skills in the shortest time. After the withdrawal of the Soviet experts in 1960, it is thanks to their hard work that the Range was able to quickly throw away the “walking stick” and successfully launched the first ground-to-ground missile “Dongfeng 1” that year.
According to incomplete statistics, more than 140 students from the first and second group of graduates of the school were fighting in the front line, and had grown into the early backbone of the Range. Their brilliant names can easily make a long list:
Hu Wenquan, one of the first group of graduates of the school, worked in the Gobi Desert for 28 years until he died of cancer. He was winner of four scientific and technological achievements awards, had been rewarded for 14 times, won one first-class merit award and four third-class merit awards. Buried in Dongfeng Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, his tomb is on the right of that of Marshal Nie Rongzhen.
Li Ruosheng, one of the school’s first group of graduates, joined the Range in 1958 and sent “Two Bombs and One Satellite” into the sky together with his comrades.
Yang Huan, one of the school’s first group of graduates and the general commander of the launch of “Dongfanghong-1” satellite.
Zhang Qibin, one of the school’s sixth group of graduates, is one of the “seven warriors sticking to their position” who remained in the underground launch control room only 100 meters from the launch site in 1966 when China conducted a combined missile and nuclear weapon test. And he was at that time the only person in charge of technology.
Since man must die, just let me die in the Gobi Desert and get buried in the hills. The brave spirit and strong patriotic feelings of the graduates of Harbin Military Academy of Engineering thus exert a profound influence on their successors - graduates from NUDT.
In 1978, thanks to Deng Xiaoping, the main body of the school, Changsha Institute of Technology was renamed National University of Defense Technology, regaining its status as a military university. Since then, it has seen its graduates, who carry forward the legacy of their predecessors, make remarkable contributions in JSLC.
In 1978, Cui Jijun went to JSLC deep in the desert after graduation. Two years later, he served as the ignition operator of China’s first intercontinental ballistic missile “Dongfeng5”. This successful whole-course flight test marked that China finally broke the long-term monopoly of the United States, the Soviet Union and other superpowers on intercontinental strategic nuclear weapons.
That day, all the technicians were overwhelmed with joy, and the scene in the testing room made him love the place even more, deciding to devote his life to the cause. Then he successively served as director of JSLC and chief commander of manned space engineering launch system. He was always on the front line, including all the launch missions from Shenzhou1 to Shenzhou10, and witnessed every success of Shenzhou spacecrafts.
China’s manned space program“921”
The year of 1992 was memorable for JSLC. On September 21 of the year, China’s manned space program “921” was officially approved. The implementation of “921” brought profound changes to JSLC, then still with poor conditions.
A few hundred kilometers from the JSLC is the Mogao Caves, Dunhuang, where wall paintings reflected our ancients’ dreams of flight thousands of years ago. From world’s earliest astronomical works Gan and Shi's Celestial Book by Gan De and Shi Shen to Ming Dynasty’s trial of rocket launch by a Magistrate, to new China’s “714” and “863” programs, Chinese people’s explorative efforts for the vast universe has never been limited to myth and imagination. When the “921” project was launched, the older generation retired and left successively. During this period, the personnel of the NUDT who worked in the Center, driven by the will of their old alumni and expanded their exploration of space from scratch. And that is why they proudly call themselves “aerospace personnel”.
Commander zero, a very special role in the launch mission, is responsible for countdown and issuing launch instructions. He starts to exercise the command eight hours prior to the launch, and serves as the top command of all major systems 30 minutes before the launch.
During the multiple launch missions, including Shenzhou series and Tiangong series, NUDT has seen its graduates hold this important position time and again:
Guo Baoxin, Commander zero of Shenzhou1 to Shengzhou5, whose command sent Yang Liwei into space;
Guo Zhonglai, Commander zero of Shenzhou7, who gave orders for the launch of China’s first manned mission;
Zhou Xiaoming, Commander zero of Shenzhou10, whose order sent Nie Haisheng, Zhang Xiaoguang and Wang Yaping into space.
Wang Jun, Commander zero of Tiangong-1 and Shenzhou8 and their docking, and Commander zero of Shenzhou9. Three days before the launch of Shenzhou7, heavy rain poured down on the launch site. Wang Jun and his team wrapped the 105-meter tower tightly with ropes, blankets and rainproof cloth against the torrential rain.
Security is at the core of manned space flight. In this sense, quality is the lifeline of space launch. When it comes to strict quality control, we must mention the Center’s current chief engineer Zheng Yonghuang.
Zheng Yonghuang and Wang Jun are college classmates and graduated from NUDT in 1987. Thanks to long-term technical practice, Zheng becomes very experienced in spotting and perceiving problems with rockets, satellites and spacecrafts. After the zero-altitude escape flight test in 1998, he spotted the abnormal part from the telemetry curve, and put forward suggestions to improve the oil chamber design.
When Shenzhou3 was launched, he found that the protection resistance value of some system pyrotechnics was out of tolerance from a sea of data, and the failure was removed after retesting.
After the launch of Shenzhou4, he found six problems by examining data, locating the causes and offering countermeasures.
After Shenzhou5 successfully returned to the earth, he found abnormal conditions from the thick flight data, and removed hidden dangers by immediately reporting it to the superior, thus paving the way for subsequent tasks.
The propellant is very important for huge rocket to successfully lift the spacecraft into space, and that is why it is called the “blood” of rocket.
Zou Lipeng, director of the planning department of JSLC, graduated from NUDT with a master’s degree in 1988. He has long been responsible for the fuel extraction, storage and transportation coordination and command of Jiuquan, Xichang and Taiyuan satellite launch sites.
He solved the mystery of nitrogen tetroxide purity test over 100, a problem troubling the industry for many years. He found the cause of “partial dimethylhydrazine yellow metamorphism”, a global problem confronting the space industry. The three national military standards for liquid propellants he edited have been promulgated and implemented for many years, making outstanding contributions to the support of liquid propellants for China’s space launch.
Gao Minzhong graduated from NUDT in 1992 and is now the chief engineer of the launch test station of the Center. He was known as the “expendable leader”, working more than 20 years as a rocket refueling commander dealing with highly toxic and explosive propellants.
When Shenzhou4 was launched, it was extremely cold so that the refueling time had to be shortened to ensure the success of the launch. He boldly proposed the cross-refueling mode, and led the team to work with bare hands for several hours. Finally, the refueling time was shortened by two hours.
When Shenzhou5 was launched, he put forward a failure response plan of indirect refueling, to ensure the spacecraft to run into the orbit accurately;
As Tiangong-1 was to be launched, his father was critically ill. But, as the coordination group leader, Gao found it hard to leave his post. It was not until Tiangong-1 was launched as scheduled, that he, after several sleepless days and nights, came to his father’s side to look after him.
The Center has a popular sayingof an unknown source: NUDT is the talent poor for aerospace industry. Spaceflight is not a myth that a person can achieve, but when generations of people from the university work together, they achieve a brilliant career. One of Cui’s poems can be seen as a portrayal of their spirit: “I am very small, so small that I cannot find my coordinates on the earth; but I am also great, because I am part of a grand cause.”
When you visit the living area of JSLC, the golden Euphrates poplar and snow reeds in autumn will make you feel like being in a forest. Annual rainfall and humidity are much higher here than they were 60 years ago. It is associated to an interesting story. When Zhang Yulin, former President and alumnus of NUDT, served as the director of the Center, he organized the planting of trees and made a success of it, thus greatly improving the natural environment of the Center.
Now the saplings have grown into towering trees, and the Center, after 60 years of growth, is now at her third turning point. The year 2016 marked the 80th anniversary of the victory of the Long March and also the year of China’s comprehensive deepening of reform. As for the Center, it faces a historical mission and responsibility as for how to respond to the call of the central government, implement the reform requirements, and make contributions to China’s aerospace industry.
Jia Lide, director of the planning office of the Center, is undoubtedly among those who ride the wave of the transition of the Center. The Doctor, who graduated from NUDT in 2008, has a rich resume and outstanding performance.
When he first arrived at the Center, he developed a very convenient human-computer interaction system, which is still in use today. His technical report won the first place every year in the department evaluation. He has delivered major technical analysis reports for many times. During his tenure as the director of the telemetry room of the launch test station, he led the team to obtain more than 20 patents.
He holds that talent in transition should be geared to the reform and development in terms of planning, while possessing long-term vision, broad vision, systematic thinking and scientific and technological literacy. Interdisciplinary talents, therefor, are the kind of talents that the Center needs most and is trying hard to cultivate. They should not only understand technology and theory, but also have the spirit of forging ahead.
Jia Lide and his wife Li Ting
The post-80s and 90s generation will be the future generation that takes on important tasks in transformation of the Center. Among them many are graduates from NUDT.
“Women soldiers” are a beautiful scenery in the eyes of the young technicians in the Center. Jia Lide and his wife Li Ting declared love for each other in the campus of NUDT. And she then came with him to the Center. The two are now the Center’s famous doctor couple.
Li Ting is responsible for the data analysis of each system after the launch. Previous analysis techniques are time-consuming and require five or six people to work overtime for four to seven days to make an analysis report. To address the problem, Li Ting has developed a data analysis platform that reduced the analysis time to three minutes, wining hermany second prizes for scientific and technological progress.
Yang Bo, who graduated from NUDT in 2012, is a versatile person who hates to stay idle. She often participates in singing and reading competitions on behalf of her department. Not wanting to lag behind in technique, she did several lab projects during her pregnancy. In order to get familiar with her new post as soon as possible, she worked overtime to read materials, sending her 2-year-old child to kindergarten. She often says that women are not inferior to men. She has decided to become a Commander zero someday.
Contrary to stereotypes, today’s young people at the Center do not consider it a “sacrifice” to work here. Although surrounded by desert, the small environment inside the Center is good, where one can calm down to concentrate on his work.
Jiang Wei, the current head of the USB system, took initiative to sign up to Jiuquan. He once had the honor to visit the Center which, coupled with his love of aerospace industry, decided to sign up when the school team cadres conducted mobilization.
The Center has many graduates from NUDT like Jiang Wei, and they have all made achievements. Liu Yongli, graduated from the school in 2003, is now a deputy station chief, and has won the third-class merit award. LüNan, graduated from the school in 2005, is now the deputy chief of staff of the launch test station. Sun Rui, graduated from the school in 2010, is an optical surveyor and has won two scientific and technological progress awards from the Center. Xu Shengtao, graduated from the school in 2011, is now in charge of data processing and the winner of a third prize.
Generations of graduates from the school have shined brilliantly with their feat. Over the past 60 years, they have made significant contributions to JSLC, and China’s national defense and aerospace industry. During the period of comprehensively deepening reform, they have made continuous innovations and breakthroughs in spaceflight, and they will surely create even more brilliant achievements.
Authors: Yan Jin, Yao Hong, Zou Yilan, Sheng Meigang, Yan Qiming, Wang Yunli
Editor: Chen Si