China has just launched its second small Tiangong space station into orbit, more or less catching up to what the United States’ and Russia’s own space programs achieved starting in the 1970s.
Riding atop a Long March rocket, the 34-foot-long, 10-ton Tiangong-2 blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China on Sept. 15, aiming for an orbit 240 miles over Earth’s surface.
While Beijing’s effort to establish a long-term human presence in orbit is impressive on a political level, on a technological level it’s decades behind the curve. In the United States and elsewhere, private companies are poised to establish a long-term presence in space that doesn’t depend on big, government-run orbital structures.
“China is currently doing nothing in space that the U.S. hasn’t done already, much sooner, and often with a much higher level of technological sophistication,” Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and a space expert, told The Daily Beast.
In the race to build orbital habitations, Russia actually beat the United States by a few years when it launched the first of several Salyut stations beginning in 1971. America’s first space station was Skylab, which lasted six years starting in 1973. Today Russia and the United States work together on the International Space Station, which began operation in 1998 and has expanded to include dozens of modules capable of supporting six crew in total, year-round.
Compared to the International Space Station, the single-module Tiangong stations are tiny.
The plan is for a pair of Chinese astronauts to visit Tiangong-2 in October and stay for a month or so—an improvement over the Tiangong-1 station, which managed to support two crew for just eight days in 2012 and 12 days in 2013.
Tiangong-1, China’s first space station, launched in 2011 and decommissioned back in March amid rumors of a technical malfunction. Chances are the older station will plummet back to Earth sometime in 2017 as its orbit decays.
Like its predecessor, Tiangong-2 is supposed to last just a few years. Its replacement could be a third Tiangong station that, like Tiangong-1 and -2, will be temporary. The Chinese space agency is planning to loft a fourth and much larger station in 2020 or later. Assuming the project succeeds, the fourth craft could become the basis of a large, long-lasting space station similar in scale to the International Space Station.
But don’t hold your breath. “The Chinese have quite a bit more work to do before they are ready to start assembling their space station,” Gregory Kulacki, a space expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Daily Beast. “It is possible they could complete that work by 2020, but my guess is that they will need more time.”
In any event, it’s possible the Chinese could have a large, sustainable space station up and running by the time International Space Station finally reaches the end of the line in the mid- to late 2020s. At that point, prolonging the International Space Station’s useful life would take a sizable injection of expensive new technology requiring significant political will. With NASA’s budgets flattening and U.S.-Russian relations at a low point, the space station could begin to look like a pricey liability in Washington and Moscow.
And that’s where China holds an advantage. Sure, the Tiangong stations are small and somewhat archaic—and the larger station they’re meant to support will merely duplicate what the International Space Station achieved in 1998. What’s impressive is that Beijing has managed to plug away steadily at its space stations, year after year, calmly weathering economic crises and political turnover.
Such stability is vital for space programs costing tens or hundreds of billions of dollars and requiring years or even decades of research and development. And in space the Chinese Communist Party has proved remarkably stable. “As many members of the Chinese space community have told me, China is not in a hurry,” Kulacki explained. “They are not racing anyone, and safety is a higher priority than meeting an arbitrary deadline.”
Indeed, the enduring domestic political support for China’s space stations could prove more important than the stations themselves for China’s future as a space power. By contrast, the United States—and, to a lesser extent, other spacefaring countries—is virtually assuming that political will for its own space program will collapse, and private companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic will fill the vacuum.
There’s even a company building space stations. In April, Las Vegas space startup Bigelow Aerospace announced an ambitious plan to build at least two inflatable space stations and lob them into orbit starting in 2020. The B330 stations—each featuring its own power, life-support systems, and maneuvering thrusters arranged around a central metal frame—could function as space hotels, orbital factories, and zero-gravity research labs.
CEO Robert Bigelow said he wants to attach the first B330 to the International Space Station in order to expand the station’s volume by as much as a third and, perhaps, help extend its usefulness beyond its planned mid-2020s decommissioning date. “We are hoping we can get the permissions necessary from NASA to say, ‘Yes, let’s attach it,’” Bigelow said.
But even if NASA says no, Bigelow said he will continue developing his inflatable stations. There’s plenty of incentive to do so. Asteroid- and moon-mining—and the associated orbital manufacturing—could mean hefty profits for any company willing to make a big investment in space technology and assume a significant financial risk.
“The new space players such as Bigelow, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic are the future,” Johnson-Freese told The Daily Beast. “The new space players aren’t reliant on political will. They operate on business plans, a much sounder practice and one that will eventually ‘normalize’ space as an area of industrial and geographic development.”
While China tinkers with old school, government-funded orbital stations, the United States—via private enterprise—is laying the foundation for a whole new approach to space exploration.