China really has come out of no where in the past decade in terms of space capability. 2003 saw them launch their first taikonaut into space aboard Shenzhou 5 and they quickly followed that up 2 years later with another manned orbital mission that lasted 5 days. Just 3 years after that China then completed their first extravehicular activity (EVA) showing that their ability to develop their capability rivalled that of other nations that had gone before them. Sure they might have bought some of technology from Russia but they’ve improved nearly every aspect of said technology, making it far more capable that it ever was.
Apart from Russia other space faring countries have been somewhat apprehensive in cooperating with the fledgling space nation. The general sentiment is that they wouldn’t have anything to gain and they’d only be helping them (which is ludicrous, considering the improvements they made to all the Russian tech they bought). This has extended as far as the International Space Station not having one Chinese national visit it, leaving China on their own when it comes to developing space technologies. To that end China just today launched their very own space station, Tiangong 1:
China launched their first space station module into orbit today (Sept. 29), marking a major milestone in the rapidly expanding Chinese space program. The historic liftoff of the man ratedTiangong 1 (Heavenly Palace 1) space lab on a Long March 2F rocket took place at 9:16 p.m. local time (9:16 a.m. EDT) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center located in Gansu province in northwest China and is an impressive advance for China.
The beautiful nighttime liftoff occurred exactly on time and was carried live on China’s CCTV and on the internet for all to see. Chinese President Hu Jintao and many of China’s other top government leaders witnessed the launch from the launch control center as a jesture of confidence and support. Their presence was a clear sign of just how important China’s top leadership considers investments in research as a major driver of technological innovationthat is bolstering China’s vigourously growing economy and employing tens of thousands of people.
As a space station Tiangong 1 is a diminutive craft having only 15m² worth of pressurized volume. Within that space though it has sleeping quarters for a crew of 3 and exercise equipment. The life support systems are capable of hosting a crew for missions up to 40 days in length although that capability won’t be tested for a while. The next Shenzhou mission will be visiting the Tiangong 1 space station however it won’t be manned as it will just be a docking test flight. The following 2 missions will bring crews aboard the space station and they’ll remain in orbit for longer durations each time. After those missions Tiangong 1 will be de-orbited in preparation for the next Tiangong station.
The way China is progressing their technology is distinctly Russian in their origins. From 1971 to 1982 Russia’s Salyut program (which formed the basis for Mir and the ISS) used a similar method for testing equipment and expanding capabilities. During that program a total of 9 Salyut space stations were launched, visited by crews and then de-orbited at the end of their life. It’s a distinct difference from the American way of doing things which is to launch a much larger craft and keep it up there for as long as possible, ala Skylab. Adopting the Russian style of envelope pushing means China can iterate on their designs faster and improve their technology more quickly, which they’ve shown they’re quite capable of doing.
For the launch the International Astronomical Union presented taikonaut Zhai Zhigang with 300 flags that had previously flown on a Russian Soyuz as well as the last space shuttle mission. It might seem like a small gesture but it’s an indication that the world is starting to take China’s endeavour’s in space seriously and will hopefully begin to include them in their cooperative efforts. China has proved they’re quite a capable nation technologically and ignoring them would be doing us a major disservice.
The future of human space exploration is looking ever increasingly bright and China’s success with Tiangong 1 is just another sign of this. Hopefully their success spurs on the space superpowers of old to start innovating faster than they currently are as nothing gets people excited about space more than giants battling it out for technological supremacy. It’s quite likely though that the real competition will come from private industry and that’ll be quite a show to watch.