China’s Next Step: A “Heavenly Palace”

With China building its own space station, a veteran U.S. astronaut says it’s time for NASA and its partners to extend an invitation.

Tiangong-1 heads spaceward from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on September 29. China Manned Space Engineering Office

Last Thursday at 9:16 p.m. local time, at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, a Long March 2F rocket roared to life, lifting a cylindrical module called Tiangong-1 (“Heavenly Palace”) into orbit. The eight-ton TG-1 will first be used as a docking target, then as a small, human-tended space station, and is designed to stay up for two years. Coming almost three years to the day after China’s last astronaut mission, the Tiangong launch marks the beginning of an important new phase in the nation’s human spaceflight program.

Although it may seem new to Westerners, that program actually began in the late 1960s, with Chairman Mao’s selection of the first group of Chinese National Astronauts. Economic and technological realities prevented China from achieving human spaceflight at the time, but the idea was born. Fast-forward 25 years, to the beginning of Project 920. This program sought initially to place China’s first astronaut into orbit in 1999, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of The People’s Republic of China. Project 920 did achieve the dream, albeit four years late. In October 2003 Yang Liwei became the first Chinese national astronaut, and China became only the third nation to launch its own astronauts into space.

Now, eight years later, China’s human spaceflight program is on a steady course. The pace has been slow, but China’s three flights to date have demonstrated a steadily advancing capability. Yang Liwei’s Shenzhou 5 mission proved the ability to launch people into orbit. Shenzhou 6 expanded the crew to two and the number of days in orbit to four. Shenzhou 7 added a spacewalk, although it only lasted 17 minutes (as opposed to American and Russian EVA’s, which typically are planned for six-and-a-half hours). The Chinese have maximized publicity for their missions, and limited their chances of failing, by flying only once every few years. This is not the most efficient path for growth, but one could argue that it has been successful. The main reason any country gets into the human spaceflight business, after all, is national prestige. Now that Russia and the United States, who dominated spaceflight for 50 years, have both slowed their own activities, China’s efforts can receive even more attention.

What are China’s plans for the future? Program officials have made no secret of their desire to build a space station. Indeed, China had, from the beginning of its human spaceflight program, talked openly about joining the International Space Station. These overtures were rebuffed by the United States, initially on the grounds that China’s technology was not mature. This is simply not true. In 2006, I became the first American to visit the Astronaut Center of China (ACC). There I met the center director and several astronauts, including Yang Liwei. I toured the center firsthand and was impressed with what I saw. The control panel of the Shenzhou spacecraft simulator was modern, featuring multiple display screens that appeared to be re-configurable. The center itself was up-to-date and clean. What the Chinese lack is operational experience.

Other reasons given for not working with China have to do with disagreements over human rights issues and the fear of technology theft. But NASA’s partnership with Russia on civilian space programs has not resulted in any such illegal technology transfer, in either direction. Why then, would it occur with China?

Cooperate or not, China’s actions suggest that the nation will continue with human spaceflight. Now that Tiangong-1 is in orbit, two subsequent un-crewed Shenzhou missions will test Automated Rendezvous and Proximity Operations (ARPO) and docking technologies. These flights, the first of which is expected within the next few weeks, will be followed next year with crewed demonstrations. If successful, these missions will give China the same operational docking capability that Russia has with its Progress and Soyuz vehicles. Beyond that, China has announced plans to use Tiangong-1 as a human-tended station, where visiting crews would live and work aboard the laboratory for periods of around two weeks.

China is continuing with the development of the Long March 5 (LM-5) rocket, a heavy-lift vehicle with a cryogenic core stage—another indicator of advanced technical capability. A new launch site on Hainan Island, currently under development, will give China the ability to easily launch into a five-degree inclination, which is ideal for lunar trajectories. Chinese officials have announced that in 2020, once the LM-5 and the Hainan launch facility are completed, they will launch their first space station core module, approximately the size and shape of the core module of the International Space Station. But this will be no mere copy. Chinese space engineers are working on an advanced closed-loop life support system, and have released drawings showing multiple modules that would be added to the station over time.

What should the United States do? I believe that we have an opportunity right now to reclaim the leadership role in human spaceflight by bringing China into the International Space Station partnership, as well as future exploration missions. The United States has the unique ability to integrate the world’s space programs. China sent the Chang’e-1 space probe to the moon in 2007, which returned striking high-definition images of the lunar surface. Its sister spacecraft Chang’e-2 was launched to the moon in October 2010. Although there have been no official announcements, I believe China has ambitions to land people on the lunar surface. The moon is an important part of Chinese culture, and landing there would demonstrate significant technological and operational expertise. This of course, would return enormous national prestige. Doesn’t it make sense for the United States to lead these explorations? After all, we’re the only people who have been there.

During his 15 years as an astronaut, Leroy Chiao flew in space four times—including once as the copilot of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station, where he served as commander of the six-and-a-half-month Expedition 10 mission. Dr. Chiao was the first Chinese-American professional astronaut, spacewalker and mission commander.

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