China’s Manned Space Program: Slow and Steady Wins the Race

China’s Manned Space Program: Slow and Steady Wins the Race

The clock is ticking on the International Space Station or ISS. The United States-led ISS project, which began construction in 1998, was a monumental effort in terms of technological achievement, financial cost, and political coordination among many of the world’s leading powers. Today the ISS is an important outpost for human exploration, but one might argue it has become a relic of a bygone era. The ISS project was a product of the 1990s, an era of relatively stable great power relations. The ISS, like any machine, has a shelf life. While it may be able to continue operations until 2025, there is little hope of an internationally-collaborated replacement. Indeed, it may well be the case that by 2025 China will have the only space station orbiting Earth. This possibility is made all the more ironic in that the United States banned China from joining the ISS project due to fears that it would steal American technology.

China’s space program has been slowly and steadily gaining on more established players, namely Russia and the United States. While Russia and the USA together dominated the space race in the 1960s, their space programs lost clear goals after the mid-1970s. In the last 15 years, China has quietly leveraged its second-comer advantage together with consistent directives from its government and has been gradually eroding the technology gap with rivals. China now has its own manned spacecraft, successfully demonstrated extravehicular “space walks,” autonomous rendezvous and docking technology, and is on the brink of introducing new rockets that will be just as powerful as any fielded by the USA or Russia.

China was an early leader in space technology. China became the fifth nation to launch a satellite into orbit when it launched the Dongfenghong-1 in 1970, also becoming the third nation to launch a satellite and recover it in 1975. Despite an early lead, China began to slip behind as the it’s government prioritized economic development, resulting in slow progress in astronautical capabilities over the next 20 years. A breakthrough came when the Chinese National Space Administration or CNSA first tested its Shenzhou manned spacecraft in 1999. The Shenzhou spacecraft is loosely based on the Russian Soyuz design. By adopting a tried and tested design, China minimized risk and cost. Shenzhou-1 was the first of 4 unmanned test missions that led to the launch of Shenzhou-5 in 2003, which carried China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, into orbit for about 21 hours. With Shenzhou-5 China became the third country to launch a human into orbit using its own technology. Since then, China has steadily expanded its reach. In 2005 China launched two astronauts into space for nearly 5 days. This was followed by Shenzhou-7 in 2008 which carried three astronauts, one of which performed China’s first spacewalk. The next manned mission, Shenzhou-9 in 2012, carried China’s first female astronaut as part of a mission that remained in space for nearly two weeks. Shenzhou-10 repeated the endeavour in2013. While many in the Western media have portrayed China’s space program as an “aggressive” race with other nations, there is little to back up this assertion. On the contrary, China’s space program has proceeded in a measured and incremental fashion. From 1999 to the present, China has launched only ten Shenzhou missions, of which five were manned. In other words, China only launches a manned space flight every three years on average. This is indicative of a program that attempts to make every dollar spent count by launching fewer but carefully planned and coordinated missions. This is in stark contrast to the flurry of flights made on the part of USSR and USA during the “space race” where achievement took priority over budget concerns.

A Clear Direction

China’s space program has benefited from a clear mandate that has remained basically unchanged since the 1990s. Since then, the Chinese government has also maintained that the ultimate goal of China’s manned space program was to construct a space station and establish a foothold in space. China took its first major step toward that end in 2011 with the launch of Tiangong-1. Tiangong-1, while usually described as a mini-space station, is in fact a multipurpose test vehicle that enables China to develop a space station far more quickly and cheaply. Tiangong-1’s initial mission was that of a “target vessel” which tested rendezvous and docking technology with the unmanned Shenzhou-8 in late 2011. In this way, Tiangong-1 is similar to the Agena target vessels launched by the United States in the 1960s. Unlike the Agena, however, Tiangong-1 can be used for multiple docking tests. Tiangong-1 is also a technology demonstrator for space station life support systems. Two separate crews have spent nearly a month docked with the spacecraft. Likewise, the spacecraft has remained in orbit for over three years. This underlines the longevity and durability of the equipment onboard Tiangong-1. In this way, Tiangong-1 is much like early Russian Salyut space stations that paved the way for the much larger Mir Space Station. Additionally, Tiangong-1 is also the prototype for the Tianzhou cargo vessel that will serve as an unmanned cargo ferry for the future Chinese space station, much like the Russian Progress or European ATV cargo vessels that service the ISS. China killed three birds with one stone by equipping Tiangong-1 with the ability to demonstrate the technology that normally would have required three separate spacecraft and three separate designs. This represents careful planning and cost considerations on the part of mission engineers as well as clear mandate from a government that doesn’t face election cycles and frequently shifting priorities.

Catching Up

While China may not consider itself to be in a race with other nations with respect to its space program, their slow and steady approach is quickly narrowing the gap with Russia and the USA. Soon, the Wenchang Space Centre, China’s forth space launch facility will be completed on Hainan Island. The new facility will enable the launching of much larger and more powerful rockets. The opening of the new launch centre coincides almost perfectly with the completion of a new family of launch vehicles, the Long March 5, 6, and 7 series rockets. The Long March 5 will be able to loft twice as much payload as China’s current launch vehicles into low Earth orbit and be powerful enough to launch components of China’s future space station, the first of which is is slated for lift-off in 2018. With the completion of that space station in 2022, China will have placed itself on par with Russia and the USA in terms of space experience and capability. For their part, Russia and the USA are both working on “super heavy” rockets and new spacecraft that would enable deep space exploration to the Moon and beyond. With China’s recent announcement of the development of the Long March 9 rocket, their own super heavy launcher, China is signalling that its space ambitions won’t remain in low Earth orbit. China will not follow the USA and Russia into deep space, but will explore alongside them. This will place CNSA in a new and far more perilous position: no longer just a follower but a leader in space exploration.

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