Wang Xiji, One of the Founders of “Nuclear Bomb, Missile and Satellite”: Let Chinese Stars Shine in Space


“Foster China’s national character and striving spirit.” Dong Baocun, expert of military history, continues to tell the story of one of the founders of “Nuclear Bomb, Missile and Satellite”. 

Wang Xiji is an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and a Chinese expert in satellite and satellite recovery technology. As the technical director of China’s first sounding rocket, the general plan designer of China’s first satellite carrier rocket and the first chief designer of China’s first recoverable satellite, he has made great contributions to China’s space development and was awarded the medal for “Nuclear Bomb, Missile and Satellite”.

Dong Baocun: Academician Wang, winner of “Nuclear Bomb, Missile and Satellite”, has many legendary stories to tell. When in primary school, he did very well in maths. In 1938 when he graduated from junior high school, Southwest United University was holding its enrollment exam in Kunming. He decided to have a try, and was successfully enrolled. 

In 1942 after graduating from university, he took the exam for state-financed oversea study. With remarkable grades, he was successfully enrolled in the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, US. There, he obtained his master degree in power and fuel.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, two photos pulled at his heartstrings; thus, he made up his mind to return to his motherland. One of the photos shows that the People’s Liberation Army were sleeping on a street in Shanghai after Shanghai was liberated. In his later years, Wang recalled and said, “There were incessant fighting between warlords when I was in China. But when I saw this photo for the first time, in which soldiers would sleep outside just for protecting the people, I realized that this was an army truly serving the people and existing for people’s happiness.”

For this reason, he resolutely abandoned the good academic environment overseas, and boarded the ship “President Cleveland” with other Chinese students back to China.

In 1958, Wang was allocated to work in the Shanghai Institute of Mechanical & Electrical Engineering, specializing in developing and launching the carrier rocket of man-made satellite. In an interview, he recalled: It was not until I got there that I knew about my work, which was to develop carrier rocket. Although I had never been involved in such work, I must comply with the organizational arrangements because it was what my country needed.

Dong Baocun: At that time, all the western countries were imposing a complete economic blockade on China. Wang and several others could only depend on their knowledge at hand, search resources as many as possible and study those unfamiliar scientific works day and night. Under such circumstances where they needed to study while doing researching, they started China’s rocket trials. 

The first two types of rockets, though completed designing, manufacturing and assembling, were forced to put away because of failed indicators. Faced with such setback, Wang put forward a suggestion: we should make our way from reality; we could take uncontrolled sounding rocket with little technical difficulty as a good breakthrough, gradually create favorable conditions and start to build carrier rocket when suitable. His suggestion was soon accepted the superiors.

Back in those days, China was very poor. Everything was simple and crude, whether in terms of design or trails. Rocket engine trials may generate high pressure gas, poisonous gas and high-temperature fire, so the testbed must be equipped with anti-explosion, anti-toxin and fireproofing facilities. Wang and his team converted a waste bunker into a testbed for rocket engine in Jiangwan Airport. In the cold winter, all the scientific and technical personnels became masons. They made mud with water, moved bricks and lift rocks. In an amazingly short time, an anti-explosion, anti-toxin and fireproofing testbed for rocket engine was built.

On the afternoon of February 19, 1960, the liquid-propellant sounding rocket, which was designed and developed completely by Wang and his team, was successfully launched. Although its flight altitude only reached 8 km, it was a milestone in China’s space history. It marks China’s significant step towards the outer space.

In the process of designing the sounding rocket and under the leadership of Wang, he and his team passed through difficulties one after another, and accumulated valuable data and experience, laying a good foundation for developing carrier rockets. He recalled in the interview that they summarized the experience from their experimental researches over and over again that the research and development of rockets needed to be in line with China’s national conditions.

Rocket design must suit China’s situation. Back then, we barely established diplomatic relations with other countries, so what we had was only ourselves. If we were doing poorly in industries, products and funding, it was impossible not to comply with national conditions. Based on such circumstances, we thought that flying up should be our first step.

Dong Baocun: After completing the mission of sounding rocket, a new and challenging task was allocated to him, which was to be in charge of the demonstration and design of the general plan for Long March 1, China’s first carrier rocket. In order to propose a practical and feasible technical plan in line with China’s national conditions, he did plenty of researches and learned current technical power and supporting parameters. Based on full consideration of space, ground, materials and technology, Wang creatively combined missile technology with sounding rocket, as well as liquid propellant rocket with solid propellant rocket, and put forward a technical plan with enough carrying capacity, much funding saved and sufficient time to catch up with satellite launching process. This plan was successfully applied to Long March 1, the first type of the Long March series of carrier rockets. 

After finishing the task of Long March 1, Wang threw himself into developing the first recoverable satellite. At that time, the insurmountable difficulty of designing a recoverable satellite discouraged a lot of people. Under his leadership, Wang and his team made several plans. After numerous arguments and discussions, they finally developed a plan to fully harness the capacity of Long March 2 carrier rocket and make use of the ballistic recovery method to build a large re-entry capsule composed of re-entry capsule and propulsion section.

For decades, this plan remained the basic plan for China’s recoverable satellite. The recoverable satellite series generally formed from the basic plan has become the satellite series with the most successfully-used public platform, the shortest time for research and design, the lowest cost, the most launches and the highest success rate.

On the morning of November 26, 1975, the recoverable satellite was successfully launched to space. While others were immersed in the joy of success, Wang took his luggage and rushed into satellite telemetry, tracking, and command center, because he thought the mission was not completed and he needed to wait for the satellite to return to the ground. Three days later, the satellite successfully returned. When the red and white parachute appeared in the sky, Wang had been awake for three whole days.

With his significant contributions in Long March 1 and the recoverable satellite, he was twice awarded National Scientific and Technology Progress Award. Later, in order to recognize his vital foundation role in designing Long March 1 carrier rocket, the CPC Central Committee, the State Council and the Central Military Commission awarded Wang Xiji the medal for “Nuclear Bomb, Missile and Satellite”.

Wang once said, “The reasons why we would succeed are the superiority of a socialist nation which gathers strengths to deal with important matters and the spirit of ‘Nuclear Bomb, Missile and Satellite’.” Wang Xiji set a good example of the spirit of “Nuclear Bomb, Missile and Satellite”. Chinese young people of the new generation should treat their own work in such spirit to contribute to national defense and comfort the space heroes of older generations.