I’ve always felt that China’s exclusion from the International Space Station project has been a huge misstep on the USA’s part. Sure I can understand that there are some concerns, as there always are with any international co-operative effort, but the fact is that China really did have a lot to offer the ISS even if it wasn’t anything that the Russians could provide. Exclusion from such a project has sent them down their own path of space exploration and the last decade has shown that China are not only capable of putting their own Taikonauts up there but they’re also quite adept at pushing the boundaries of their capabilities much faster than governments have done in the past.
It was just on 9 months ago today that China launched their own space station, Tiangong-1. It didn’t take them long after that to launch an unmanned Shenzhou capsule and dock it with the space station, verifying that all the systems required for humans to be able to visit the station were in place and functioning correctly. 4 days ago saw the launch of Shenzhou-9 carrying with it 3 Taikonauts (including China’s first female space fairing citizen) with their destination being none other than Tiangong-1. Yesterday saw them dock and for the first time in history China now has a manned space station in orbit.
The total mission time for Shenzhou-9 is about 2 weeks giving the taikonauts around a week or so aboard Tiangong-1. In that time they’ll be doing some medical experiments and studying the development of butterflies in a microgravity environment. Realistically the payload of this mission is the taikonauts themselves and this just serves as a shake down of the systems aboard Tiangong-1 ahead of future missions that will visit it and it’s successors. There’s one more manned visit planned after this one concludes currently scheduled for some time next year, after that Tiangong-1 will be deorbited and then replaced by upgraded versions of the craft. Ones which will form the basis of their permanent space station.
China has made a lot of progress in the past couple years and it looks like they’re not about to stop any time soon. Whilst I don’t believe that their achievements will see them end up being contributors to the ISS it will put pressure on the USA to relax their rules around co-operation with them as their original reasons (that China had nothing to give the program and would only take) really don’t hold any ground anymore. Of course that’s never stopped anyone from holding on to an irrational point of view before and I don’t expect it to change any time soon.
It’s really quite exciting to see so much development in space exploration even if it isn’t new territory. Governments competing with each other for space supremacy is how we landed men on the moon before we had modern computers and China’s incredible efforts to get a foothold in space could spur on another race of similar magnitude. If I’m honest I do wish that this wasn’t the case, I’d much prefer them just to do it for the sake of doing it, but nothing gets superpowers moving faster than the potential for their pride to be hurt. With an election on the horizon there’s ample opportunity for the upcoming Presidential candidates to start affirming their commitment to being the leaders in space and hopefully we’ll start to hear them doing so soon.
Ah SpaceX, the one company that I simply can’t get tired of talking about. I think it’s because they’re just so different from the traditional way of launching things into space. Where the current players lavish billions of dollars and thousands of people at single projects SpaceX works on a skeleton crew and a shoe string budget. Where launch issues would cause others to delay by a day or more SpaceX can turn everything around in under an hour. They really are the embodiment of the start up thrust into the world of launching things into space and the entire industry is better off for having them around.
Last week saw SpaceX celebrate their 10th birthday. Now this isn’t news to many of us but it does put into perspective the kind of work these guys have been doing and how long they’ve been doing it for. In 10 years they’ve managed to design, build and successfully launch 2 different rocket systems, one of which has been launched multiple times. They’ve secured contracts with NASA to deliver supplies to the International Space Station and, should they be able to do that, they’ll push the envelope even further by being the first private space company to deliver astronauts to there as well.
The last week has also seen a swath of announcements from the now decade old space company. After several delays from NASA there’s finally a solid date for the first dock of one of their Dragon capsules, set for April 30th. The original (rather optimistic date) was in November last year but this time around it seems like all systems are go for this launch date. The launch window is small, only 4 days by my count, but with SpaceX’s track record of rapid fixes on launch days this window should be more than enough for them to get the Dragon capsule off the ground and on the way to the ISS.
SpaceX has also begun showing off the interior of the manned version of the Dragon capsule that can seat up to 7 astronauts at a time. For a capsule craft that’s pretty impressive as the Space Shuttle was only capable of carrying 1 more (albeit with a payload over 4 times that of an unmanned Dragon cargo craft) and the Russian Soyuz craft can only fit 3 in, and it’s still quite a squeeze in there. The Dragon by comparison looks to have quite a bit of room to it, indeed it’s quite comparable to the Apollo command module. It’s not specifically designed for a Lunar mission however, but there is another place that the manned Dragon capsule is well suited for.
That place is Mars.
The last, and probably most exciting, piece of news to come out of SpaceX this week is that the CEO Elon Musk has gone on record saying that he’d be able to do a round trip to Mars for around $500,000. The actual specifics of how they’ll achieve this are remaining a secret for now but Musk alluded to the fact that he has a plan for being able to refuel the craft on Mars, saving a major cost of having to truck all the fuel over there along with the payload. Whether he plans to do this with multiple launches (like launching another dragon ahead of them with the required fuel), some kind of fuel production plant on Mars or something else entirely though remains to be seen. The idea of doing a return trip to the red planet for that much though is really quite exciting and definitely something I’d consider ponying up the cash for.
SpaceX just seems to keep going from strength to strength as time goes on and this year will be no exception. The last 10 years have seen them grow from the start up that no one knew about to the new face of the private space industry. This year is looking to be a milestone year for them and I simply can’t wait to see what else they’ve got in store.
There’s a saying amongst the space enthusiast community that the shuttle only continued on for so long in order to build the International Space Station and the ISS only existed so that the shuttle had some place to go. Indeed for the last 13 years of the shuttle program it pretty much exclusively visited the ISS taking only a few missions elsewhere, usually to service the Hubble Space Telescope. With the shuttle now retired many are looking now looking towards the future of the ISS and the various manned space programs that have contributed to its creation. It’s now looking very likely that the ISS will face the same fate as Mir did before it, but there are a multitude of possibilities of what could be done instead.
Originally the ISS was slated for decommission in 2016 and with it still not being fully constructed (it is expected to be finished by next year) that would give it a full useful life of only 4 years. The deadline was extended back in 2009 to 2020 in order to more closely match the designed functional lifetime of 7 years and hopefully recoup some of the massive investment that has gone into it. It was a good move and many of the ISS components are designed to last well beyond that deadline (especially the Russian ones which can be refurbished on orbit) and there’s still plenty of science that can be done using it as a platform.
The ISS, like Mir before it, has only one option for retirement: a fiery plunge through the atmosphere into a watery grave. Whilst there’s been lots of talk of boosting it up to a higher orbit, sending it to the moon or even using it as an interplanetary craft all these ideas are simply infeasible. The ISS was designed and built to be stuck in low earth orbit its entire life with many assumptions made that preclude it from going any further. It lacks the proper shielding to go any higher than say the Hubble Space Telescope and the structure is too weak to withstand the required amount of thrust that would get it to a transit orbit (at least in any reasonable time frame). The modifications required to make such ideas feasible would be akin to rebuilding the entire station again and thus to avoid cluttering up the already cluttered area of low earth orbit it must be sent back down to earth.
Russia however has expressed interest in keeping at least some of the parts of the ISS in orbit past the 2020 deadline. It appears they want to use them as a base for their next generation space station OPSEK. This space station would differ significantly from all the previous space stations in that it would be focused on deep space exploration activities rather than direct science like its predecessors were. It would seem that those plans have hit some roadblocks as the Russian Federal Space Agency has recently stated that the ISS will need to be de-orbited at the end of its life. Of course there’s still a good 8 years to go before this will happen and the space game could change completely between now and then, thanks in part to China and the private space industry.
China has tried to be part of the ISS project in the past but has usually faced strong opposition from the USA. So strong was the opposition that they have now started their own independent manned space program with an eye to set up their own permanent space station called Tiangong. China has already succeeded in putting several people into space and even successfully conducted an extravehicular activity (EVA), showing that they have much of the needed technology to build and maintain a presence in space. Coincidentally much of their technology was imported from Russia meaning that their craft are technically capable of docking with the Russian segments of the ISS. That’s also good news for Russia as well as their Soyuz craft could provide transport services to Tiangong in the future.
Private space companies are also changing the space ecosystem significantly, both in regards to transport costs and providing services in space. SpaceX has just been approved to roll up two of its demonstration missions to the ISS which means that the next Dragon capsule will actually end up docking with the ISS. Should this prove successful SpaceX would then begin flying routine cargo missions to the ISS and man rating of their capsule would begin in earnest. Couple this with Bigelow Aerospace gearing up to launch their next inflatable space habitat in 2014~2015 the possibility of the ISS being re-purposed by private industry becomes a possible (if slightly far fetched) idea.
The next decade is definitely going to be one of the most fascinating ones for space technologies. The power international power dynamic is shifting considerably with super powers giving way to private industry and new players wowing the world stage with the capabilities. We may not have a definitive future for the ISS but its creation and continued use has provided much of the ground work necessary to flag in the next era of space.