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.
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.