It was the world's most expensive jukebox, but it only played one tune. The purpose of putting China's first satellite into orbit on April 24, 1970, appeared to be the repeated broadcasting from space of Dong Fang Hong (The East is Red), the country's de facto anthem during the Cultural Revolution years. As the satellite started to circle the Earth, the patriotic tune could be picked up loud and clear on radio frequency 20.009 MHz. To celebrate its successful launch, premier Zhou Enlai personally delivered the good news to chairman Mao Zedong ; fireworks went up in Beijing and for several days the state-controlled media ran little else but news about the event. Designers deliberately added a shiny metallic ring to the bottom of the bright silver, 173kg satellite - then the heaviest of its kind - to increase its visibility in space. It was seen over Beijing the evening after the launch and, according to local newspapers, was visible over Hong Kong several days later. The ability to put this relatively humble device into orbit marked a watershed in China's space programme. As with so much of the programme over the past five decades, it was the little-known underlying technology, rather than the well-publicised music propaganda, that was significant. The first of the famed Long March series of rocket launchers was designed and built specifically to place Dong Fang Hong 1 into orbit. It was a giant leap in rocket technology, at least for China. As a modified version of a long-range ballistic missile (Dong Feng 4), it marked China's first significant civilian use of an advanced military weapon. New rocket fuel and engine technology had to be developed to stabilise combustion and increase thrust; advanced alloys such as titanium, glass fibre-reinforced plastic and new forms of high-strength steels were manufactured for the first time in China; entire electrical systems and high-quality transistors, then virtually non-existent in the country, were introduced. The success of the satellite project gave China's leaders enough confidence to proceed with the civilian space programme that culminated, three decades later, with the triumphant return to Earth of Colonel Yang Liwei, in October 2003, the first Chinese taikonaut (Chinese for astronaut) to circle the Earth. This odyssey was repeated with a still longer orbital stay by fellow taikonauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng, last year. The launchers that put the three taikonauts into orbits were direct rocket descendants of Long March 1. 'The launch of China's first man-made satellite Dong Fang Hong 1 made China the fifth country with such launching technology around the world,' said Wu Ji, the scientific payload systems manager of the Chinese lunar exploration programme Chang'e, who lectured on the history and future of China's space programme at the Polytechnic University this week. Now, after all the brouhaha over the flights of colonels Yang, Fei and Nie, Chang'e, named after the moon goddess, is the next showcase space project. The ground-breaking satellite Chang'e 1, China's first lunar probe, is scheduled to launch in April to survey the moon's terrain and its geophysical composition as it spends a year circling the Earth's celestial neighbour. Dr Wu said next year's mission had several aims: to draw a three-dimensional map of the moon's surface; explore useful elements and materials beyond the five that have been previously probed by US missions; study the space environment between the moon and the Earth, such as solar winds; and determine the amount and locations of helium-3. The non-radioactive and light isotope of helium, rare on Earth but common on the moon, is considered by some experts as the perfect fuel and clean energy source for the 21st century because it is non-polluting, with virtually no radioactive byproduct. Not since the US Apollo missions in the late 1960s and early 70s has the moon attracted so much attention. India, Japan and the European Space Agency (ESA) are joining Nasa in the race to plan or build space probes destined for the moon. The American agency this week upped the stakes by announcing plans to build a permanently occupied science station on the moon, with construction missions beginning by 2020. 'Chang'e will be a historic mission because it will be a first for China,' said Polytechnic University engineering professor Yung Kai-leung, who designed a sampling tool for ESA's ill-fated Beagle 2 mission to Mars. 'Only very small areas on the moon have been explored, and very little is known about its subsoil condition.' Professor Yung has started designing new sampling tools for the phase 2 Chang'e moon lander. There is also talk of the Chinese eventually establishing a permanent base on the moon, which would be a stepping stone in manned missions to Mars, and to mine for helium-3 and other elements. However, Dr Wu admitted plans for any manned mission to the moon and beyond were still at an early stage, and there was no set timetable. As the clock ticks towards the Chang'e 1 launch date, much rides on its success, beside national pride, because three successive phases of the programme cannot proceed without it. These include landing a robotic rover to explore the lunar surface and subsoil samples; collecting and delivering samples to Earth; and launching a manned mission to the moon. 'I'm always nervous,' said Dr Wu of the impending launch. He is also director of the Centre for Space Science and Applied Research under the Chinese Academy of Sciences. As Dr Wu and his colleagues prepare to launch Chang'e, they're building on the remarkable scientific achievements of China's space programme. When the programme was formally founded in 1956 by Zhou and Tsien Hsueshen, the brilliant but secretive founder of China's first missile weapon systems, the engineering abilities of the country were limited to making trucks and tractors. Tsien, expelled from his adopted country during the 'red scare' of McCarthyism the year before, had a grand vision for China's missile weapons and space missions, but he and his Chinese superiors soon realised that even his wealth of theoretical knowledge in physics and rocket science counted for little given the backward state of engineering in the country. Tsien is generally considered the scientific brain behind the Silkworm missiles, one of China's most profitable military exports to the developing world. However, in her pioneering biography of Tsien, the late Chinese-American author Iris Chang argued that his most significant contribution was not any technical invention, but his managerial leadership in building up the country's scientific infrastructures. As a leading rocket scientist in the US before his expulsion, his prestige gave Mao and Zhou the confidence to devote scarce resources to develop rocketry. He trained and imposed discipline on a generation of scientists and engineers to modernise rocket and missile developments; and with Zhou's help, formalised scientific institutions to carry out research and development. Meanwhile, at considerable personal risk, Zhou shielded the space programme from the worst excesses of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and was able to protect more than a dozen chief scientists from the Red Guards. It's from this edifice that the modern Chinese space programme evolved - from the primitive Dong Fang Hong 1 to its current level of manned orbital missions and space probe to the moon. There is much misunderstanding in the west about the Chinese space programme. One aspect is its supposed secrecy, which historian Brian Harvey argues is no longer the case. Up to the 1980s, much of what went on in space research was a state secret. According to Mr Harvey's 2004 book China's Space Program, up to the 1970s, it was often a Kafkaesque experience for new recruits to locate their workplace at space and rocket research institutes. Their search sometimes took weeks because there were no official phone numbers and addresses; some top-secret institutes did not even have names and titles, while people who knew about them were often too scared to give directions for fear of being accused of disclosing state secrets. This is no longer the case. In a recent paper for the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, a non-government research institution based in the US, Mr Harvey said the Chinese government had achieved a degree of transparency. '[Their space programme] is not as secret as is often claimed,' he wrote. 'We have many technical details about Chinese rockets because the Chinese have published user manuals. The basic details of most Chinese spacecraft are known.' Dr Wu, the senior space scientist, is the polar opposite of the secretive communist space expert. Urbane and well-dressed, he speaks fluent English and regularly travels to Europe, Taiwan and the US to attend science conferences and meet his counterparts, irrespective of the state of political tensions across the Taiwan Strait or with the Americans. 'I just returned from Taiwan on a scientific exchange,' he said. Another common western criticism of the costly Chinese space programme is whether it's justified at all, given there are so many social and scientific sectors that are underdeveloped, as well as the general level of poverty in the country. To this, Dr Wu gives a historical justification, while Mr Harvey argues the programme has achieved many spin-offs for other industries. He gives an exhaustive inventory in his book: high-temperature soldering, chemical and fuel storage, machining of titanium alloys, new forms of welding using electron beam, plasma and laser. Remote navigational control has been adopted at Beijing airport and for use in reservoir and dam control; new television and mobile phone transmission; remote sensors; precision machinery to make carpets, and permanent paints ... the list goes on. Historically, China's space programme appears to be playing catch up and is highly imitative of the Soviet and US programmes. But for Dr Wu, from the perspective of centuries, it's a continuation of its early successes in rocketry and missile technology. The Chinese discovered gunpowder in the 3rd century. In the 10th century, arrows were fitted with explosives. Ming dynasty (1368-1644) armies already used missiles with a combustion chamber, a firing system, explosive fuels and specially designed feathers as guidance system. In the 14th century, a court official, Wan Hu, built a chamber fitted with missiles and explosives. He sat inside and fired it in an attempt to reach the heavens. 'Wan Hu tested the first rocket and died during the flight,' Dr Wu said. For Wan, what can be more natural than for China to become the world's space super-power?