China’s Mysterious Manned Moon Rocket
The US has not been to the Moon in over half a century, could China be gearing up to beat the USA in the race back to the Lunar surface? China’s manned space program is known for its cautious and methodological pursuit of goals. That is why the appearance of a new mysterious lunar rocket design has perplexed many. I have dived deep into the Chinese internet, translating sparse news reports, and gathering what few photos and diagrams exist to shed light on this new rocket.
China’s manned space program, called Project 921, has launched relatively few times, but each mission has been hyper-focused on achieving significant goals. These goals have largely stayed the same since the early 1990’s: launch a crewed spacecraft and build experience in space, follow it up with a crewed space station, then (possibly) push onward toward the Moon.
China’s first crewed mission (Shenzhou 5) launched successfully in 2003, taking a single astronaut to orbit. It was followed by Shenzhou 6, 7, and 8, which replicated the entire Mercury/Gemini program with demonstration of multi-crew launches, a spacewalk, and rendezvous/docking capabilities. Since then, China has launched two small single-module space stations that have been used to demonstrate longer duration missions, automated refueling, and automated resupply.
With the basics under its belt, China’s is now prepping a multi-module space station, similar to the US-led ISS. China already has the heavy lift Changzheng 5 rocket needed to launch large modules, and the Tianzhou automated resupply craft tested and ready to go. China need only launch the modules and assemble, which will begin before 2022.
A crewed lunar program, notably, does not have official support from Beijing. Nonetheless, China space program is known to be developing some of the hardware required for deep space flight, including a brand new reusable (and as yet unnamed) spacecraft, and a super-heavy lift rocket called the Changzheng 9.
The crew capsule has already test flown and will come in two flavors, a 14 ton version for operation in Earth orbit, and a 20 ton version for beyond Earth orbit. The Changzheng 9 rocket is roughly 9 meters in diameter and similar in size and capability to the Saturn V or SLS Block 2. Hardware for Changzheng 9 has also been built and tested, going all the way back in 2015. For more information about the Changzheng 9 and other super rockets, check out this summary.
While not official sanctioned, it was always believed that it would be rocket to put Chinese boots on the Moon. But then the below photo appeared….of a completely different lunar rocket
This rocket, which is unnamed but nicknamed the ‘921 rocket’, is apparently also designed to launch humans to Moon. For a country that has stuck methodically and carefully to its plan for 30 years, the appearance of this rocket is notably uncharacteristic. Is the Changzheng 9 cancelled? Or will this rocket supplement it? Is it just a concept? Are they both just concepts? We don’t know all of the answers. But we can parse through the available information online and reach educated conclusions.
What We Know For Sure
The ‘921 rocket’ began development in 2017, and is designed to send 25 metric tons to the Moon, similar to the SLS Block 1, making it (barely) a super-heavy lift rocket. For comparison, that is only about half the tonnage that the Changzheng 9 was designed for.
The 921 is a triple core design, with a three stage central core, standing nearly 90 meters tall. Each core is about 5 meters in diameter, much like China’s heavy-lift Changzheng 5 series. Each core is said to be powered by seven YF-100k engines. The rocket is displayed alongside “manned” hardware, and is topped with a traditional launch abort tower, clearly suggesting that this rocket is designed to be human-rated.
With a 25 tons TLI capacity, the 921 rocket is capable of throwing China’s new 20 ton crewed spacecraft to the Moon. Currently, China’s most powerful rocket can only send about 8 tons, making it insufficient for deep space exploration. Diagrams found online suggest that the rocket could be flown as a single core stack or as a triple core stack. The single core version will be used to take crews to the future Chinese space station, while the triple core version will be used to launch crews to what appears to be a lunar space station.
According to Zhou Yanfei, deputy chief designer of China’s Manned Space, the 921 rocket will utilize existing engines and structure designs, which suggests that is it based on Changzheng 5 heritage components. This includes the upper stage YF-75D engines, the YF-100k engines, and the core structure.
What Can We Guess
It’s notable that the engine arrangement (see below) has a center engine and utilizes many smaller engines rather than a few large ones. This engine arrangement and number suggests that this rocket is designed to be reusable, much like the Falcon 9. That said, there is nothing else on this rocket to suggest that it will be reusable. My conclusion: the rocket will initially be expendable, but the design is flexible and leaves open the possibility to be upgraded for reusability. China is separately developing propulsive landing and reuse technology on the Changzheng 8 rocket. Perhaps the 921 rocket is waiting on Changzheng 8 to prove out landing technology before committing to it.
Interestingly, there are hints that this rocket, despite being unnamed, is further along in development than China is letting on. The engines, as previously noted, already exist and are in use. The 5 meter cores are very likely based upon the Changzheng 5, albeit possibly stretched. Photos found online show complete thrust structures already in testing. This isn’t a paper rocket.
China would need just two of these rockets to land a crew on the Moon: one launch for the crew capsule and another to launch a lander. Does this all mean that that the Changzheng 9 super rocket is being shelved? Probably not. The Changzheng 9 appears to still be on the table, and even appears alongside the 921 rocket in below display. It is possible that both rockets are under consideration for final approval, but it is also possible that the Changzheng 9 is designed only for launching of cargo, with the 921 being primarily designed for crewed launches.
So…Is China Secretly Trying to Beat the USA Back to the Moon?
At least one source speculates that China can reach the Moon five years earlier by focusing resources away from the Changzheng 9 and toward a more modest rocket. But China’s space program has long held that they are not in a race against anyone, instead taking a ‘fast follower’ approach to space technology. I don’t believe that the 921 rocket is part of a scheme to upend NASA’s Artemis Program.
Why does the 921 rocket exist then? What happened to the primacy of the Changzheng 9? Spacex happened. It’s no coincidence that work began on the 921 rocket just months after Spacex proved that it was possible to land a rocket propulsively. Generally speaking, China may not be the first to develop a new technology, but to their credit, China wastes no time in adoption. This is true in solar power, electric vehicles, high speed rail…etc. When a new technology arises, China goes all in.
China’s latest rockets, the Changzheng 5, 6, and 7 series, as advanced as they are, are not designed for reuse, and cannot be modified for it. The 921 rocket, instead, will be a reusable replacement for existing launch vehicles, with the triple core version making lunar flights possible. In essence, the 921 kills two birds with one stone. It is a quick and dirty way to catch up in reusability while opening the door to the Moon
In the meantime, the Changzheng 9 is, for now, on the back-burner. The design as we know it, likely to be shelved, and it too will evolve into a reusable design…pending success in Boca Chica with Starship.
Originally published at https://jlund.substack.com.