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'China's Elon Musk' ready to take on US space ventures

Country's first private rocket launcher OneSpace looks to global stage

The OS-X Chongqing Liangjiang Star rocket, developed by Chinese private-sector rocket builder OneSpace, took off on its maiden flight at a test field in northwestern China.   © Chongqing Daily/VCG via Getty Images

CHONGQING -- The Chinese startup that launched the nation's first commercial rocket on Thursday aims to be a major global player in the space launch business.

Beijing-based OneSpace, led by 32-year-old CEO Shu Chang, sent up the OS-X Chongqing Liangjiang Star from a site in Inner Mongolia at 7:33 a.m. The 9-meter-long, 7.2-ton rocket traveled a total of 273km during the five-minute flight, soaring as high as 38.7km.

"I hope we can become one of the world's foremost small-satellite launchers," Shu told reporters.

OneSpace enjoys a notable cost advantage. A rocket launch comes in under $5 million -- less than one-third the international average.

The entrepreneur, who founded OneSpace in 2015, is often referred to as the Chinese Elon Musk, after the Tesla chief who founded SpaceX in the U.S.

Shu studied design at Beihang University, formerly the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and earned a finance-related master's degree from Peking University. He worked at an investment fund under the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology and investment company Legend Holdings, which has a stake in Lenovo Group.

OneSpace has raised 500 million yuan ($78 million) from parties including a Legend Holdings fund so far. It has formed a joint venture with the Chongqing municipal government, with the company owning 50.1% and the local government the rest. The venture will open a production base in Chongqing by year-end.

The space launch business is energized with startups. U.S. company Rocket Lab launched a second small rocket in January. SpaceX sent up the world's most powerful rocket this year and is trying to disrupt pricing in the industry. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, often seen as a rival to Musk, has founded space startup Blue Origin. OneSpace aims to challenge these American competitors.

Some in the West doubt whether OneSpace is truly a private company, given its government ties. It has received aid from military-linked businesses and financial backing from a local government. OneSpace may come under pressure to improve transparency.

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