A view of OneSpace's exhibition area in its headquarters in Beijing on April 29. (Photo: GT)
A close encounter with Elon Musk, the well-known US technology entrepreneur, came in October 2015, two months after Shu Chang's rocket start-up was founded. Shu and his team were inspired to continue pursuing their commercial space dream by the event at Tsinghua University featuring the SpaceX CEO.
"Five people, including me, composed our initial team, and we finally got five tickets for a look at Musk. That experience was intended to understand closely his persistent pursuit of technology, so as to inspire our small team to carry on," said Shu, CEO of Beijing-based private rocket firm OneSpace Technology.
Shu has been called "China's Elon Musk" in headlines, and his company has been dubbed "China's answer to SpaceX." Shu said he has been reflecting on the company's failure to send a satellite into orbit lately.
"We're returning to zero, meaning starting from scratch in technology research," he told the Global Times in a recent exclusive interview - the first since the rocket launch failure occurred in March.
On March 27, OneSpace failed to send a satellite into orbit from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Northwest China's Gansu Province due to a malfunction of the OS-M rocket's rate gyroscope.
Acting as the eye of the rocket, the gyroscope is used to identify the rocket's direction. After 45.68 seconds, the rocket followed a twisting trajectory.
"The nearly 46-second flight helped to test some of our technology, which is good, but that is far from enough. Some key technologies were not tested during that period."
"The incident just proves the lack of respect for technology. We should have done experiments on the device," the 34-year-old entrepreneur said.
Dream of space
OneSpace has opened a new chapter by taking lessons from its recent launch and making improvements in technology research and management. "The spirit of pursuing perfection is what we should stick to. Previously, our young engineers would easily compromise and let some details go, but now they need to be 100-percent scrupulous," said Shu.
"It is a very painful experience for me and the company since it is a 'winner takes all' game, and right now, I cannot say when we'll send the second carrier rocket to space," he said.
In May last year, the start-up sent its self-designed and produced OS-X series rockets into sub-orbital space, becoming the first private firm in China to launch a commercial rocket. And in September last year, it successfully sent a second sub-orbital rocket to space. Sub-orbital rockets are those that fly at a distance of 30 to 200 kilometers from Earth.
So far, no firm in the domestic private rocket sector has achieved the orbital level, which is much higher.
In October 2018, another Beijing-based start-up, LandSpace, launched its first orbital rocket carrying a small satellite, but the cargo did not reach its target orbit.
For China's private rocket firms, the ability to successfully send a carrier rocket to orbital altitude has become the real test in the race for the commercial space sector.
iSpace, also known as Beijing Interstellar Glory Space Technology, another pioneer in the domestic private rocket sector, is scheduled to launch its first orbital rocket in May, according to Yao Bowen, assistant president of iSpace.
Yao told the Global Times on Sunday that the company aims to achieve the goal for orbit to justify the sector to the market.
"We are confident in the upcoming mission based on our advantage in technological reliability," said Yao.
The private commercial space sector is under huge pressure as it draws more attention compared to other scientific and technology sectors, such as chipset and artificial intelligence, since every launch will draw the eyes of investors, media and the public.
Ma Chunfeng, general manager at Shenzhen-based Qianhai Wutong Mergers and Acquisitions Funds, told the Global Times on Sunday that it is highly likely for start-ups to fail, especially in their initial period, since their innovation and operations are independent from the state-owned space system, which has become quite mature.
Qianhai Wutong Mergers and Acquisitions Funds is one of the investors in OneSpace.
"A launch failure is likely to be amplified in society but we, as investors, treat it normally and I think it's a good opportunity for the company to improve," said Ma.
"We really hope iSpace can succeed this time to help bolster the whole sector," Shu said.
Equipped with both knowledge and experience in space technology and investment, Shu's dream for China's rising commercial space sector has not been discarded in the face of current frustration, and he's well aware of the gap between domestic rocket firms and US heavyweights like SpaceX.
Musk's enthusiastic embrace of technology for technology's sake and his success in making SpaceX survive and thrive have acted as a lighthouse for Chinese rocket firms since 2014, when the country started to encourage the private sector to enter the space industry.
"Figures like Musk may not occur in China, but a great rocket firm like SpaceX is likely to be born in the country," said Lan Tianyi, founder of Beijing-based Ultimate Blue Nebula Co, a space industry consultancy.
"One thing is sure: despite the gap, the development speed of domestic rocket firms in the initial phase is much faster than SpaceX's early days back in 2002," Lan told the Global Times on Sunday.
China's commercial space industry has been soundly on track over the past few years in terms of both capital investment and talent.
Zhang Xiaoping, a rocket engine designer from a state-owned research institute, resigned and moved to LandSpace last year, and the career move became a hot topic of discussion. "Officials finally determined the nature of this job hop to be 'brain flow' instead of 'brain drain,' showing the country's supportive attitude for the private sector," Lan explained.
Ma believes the soil for "China's SpaceX" is becoming fertile, and a number of technology entrepreneurs will be born amid the trend.
"Technological innovation will surely become a new growth engine for China's economic development, unlike the previous engines that relied on intensive labor and business mode innovation."
Yet innovation takes time and could be met with obstacles in research and experimentation at any time, said Ma.
Shu's second encounter with SpaceX was in Los Angeles, when he visited the city two years ago.
"When I came back from the US, I didn't expect that we would build a bigger base in [Southwest China's] Chongqing than SpaceX's," he joked.
OneSpace's commercial aerospace intelligent manufacturing base, the first of its kind in the country, has completed construction and was put into operation in March this year, according to the company.
Compared with the period before OneSpace's first launch in May last year, Shu has made one clear change: he rarely mentions the company's business operations, focusing instead on its "technology transformation."
"Technology is the fundamental thing. Based on technology, we can achieve commercialization, which is transforming our technology to services and products in the market," he explained.
Turning technology into money is equally important because start-ups need it to survive. "There will be new funding this year," the CEO noted, but emphasized the company's self-reliance strategy of taking orders to support its R&D and then taking bigger orders.
"We have started making money by delivering solid-propellant engines, integrated control console and electronic devices to our customers," Shu said.
OneSpace has so far maintained more than 300 customers, including foreign satellite firms, among which 20 to 30 customers have placed orders, he added.
Founded in 2015, the company has grown out of the stage when a start-up's story is enough for investors. "You have to show your corporate fundamentals now, including your products, your services and customers," Shu said.
There are so far more than 30 firms engaged in the private commercial rocket field in the country, according to media reports. And there is bound to be an industry reshuffle in the next few years with only one or two companies surviving in the market, according to Shu.
"For commercial space, a company's ability to transform technology cannot lag behind, because the impetus for it is to stay on track and then grow bigger," said Ma, the investor.
"The days that rely only on burning funding will soon be gone," Ma noted.