The first DF-2 rocket took off from the Jiuquan space centre in Gansu on March 21, 1962. A few seconds later, it jerked, gave off black smoke and travelled 600 metres before crashing into the desert.
The rocket had been launched in a time of turmoil. The Soviet Union had cut off technical aid and evacuated all its experts in 1960 and, in the Great Leap Forward, science was put on hold as researchers focused on survival.
According to An Insider's Account of Aerospace Decision Making in China, a book published last year by the Chinese Historical Documents Publishing House, soldiers and scientists at Jiuquan were reduced to foraging for food and hunting for survival.
They eliminated bird populations and drove hundreds of kilometres to hunt Mongolian gazelle to stay alive. Many suffered from oedema, a disease caused by drinking too much water to satisfy their hunger, the book said. They also had to live in tents because there were not enough houses and used to beg for food at civilian factories.
But the biggest challenge came from technological barriers. Few documents on missile technology were left on the mainland. The Soviet Union had evacuated 1,390 experts and barred access to its technology. The scientists could find only scattered information published in American academic journals.
In the spirit of the Great Leap Forward, Chinese scientists and the military took less than a year to build the first DF-2. But author Gong Xiaohua said it was no surprise that the launch failed.
Two years later, in June 1964, another DF-2 hit a target 1,000km away. From there, mainland space ambitions grew and on October 7, 1966, a missile carrying a nuclear warhead was launched. Four years later, China launched its first satellite. The first taikonaut, Yang Liwei, entered space on October 15, 2003, and two more followed in 2005.
But the programme has not been without controversy. On January 11, Beijing destroyed a defunct weather satellite with a missile, raising international concerns.