Anyone following the developments in the space industry over the past few months will most likely be familiar with the efforts of the Chinese government to begin developing its space station. The development is a significant one, marking what is another act of defiance from a country that has become all too technologically dominant.
Now, China’s government is looking to challenge the United States’ perceived superiority in space. With an abundance of technological and financial resources, it could actually mount a serious challenge if given the time. However, it is worth understanding why China is moving ahead with this plan.
The Desire to Build on Past Successes
According to data, over 80 countries have established space programs. These countries engage in a myriad of activities, ranging from space exploration to the development of satellites. However, only three of these countries have conducted independent missions that sent humans to space.
The United States and the former Soviet Union were able to achieve spaceflight as far back as 1961, with the two superpowers engaged in the infamous Space Race. China eventually joined the two countries in 2003, after Lt. Col Yang Liwei was launched into Earth's orbit on the Shenzhou-5. Yang orbited the globe 14 times across 22 hours.
China had been working on the launch for a while. The country launched Project 921, its manned space program, in September 1992. Amongst other things, the project was tasked with achieving human spaceflight and developing a “permanent: space station.”
Critical to the second objective was the development of the Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) laboratories, which helped provide a testing ground for operating the Chinese Space Station (CSS).
Tiangong-1 was launched in September 2011 - it was an 8.5 metric ton laboratory that allowed astronauts to refine their docking and meeting maneuvers, while also carrying out some short-term space missions. Sadly, the Chinese government lost communication with the module in March 2016. In April 2018, the module fell into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Learning from the Tiangong-1, Chinese engineers bolstered the design for Tiangong-2, launching it in September 2016. The second iteration of the space lab came with an enhanced experimentation capacity, making it even better for functionality purposes. It also offered a platform for scientists and astronauts to master several critical operations, such as cargo movement and replenishment.
Thanks to improvements in areas like life support and living quarters design, Tiangong-2 was able to host the Shenzhou-2 crew in 2016. The manned mission lasted 30 days, marking China’s longest to date. While there was a plan for a third space lab, the Chinese government eventually canceled it and chose to develop a more advanced CSS altogether.
Maintaining the “Superpower” Tag
Ever since the Chinese government has been working on the space program, there has been significant financial and political support for it. In a whitepaper for the space station, the government explained that it had planned to build itself into a “space power in all respects,” with the CSS helping the government to enhance its strength.
The Chinese government also views manned spaceflight as a means of bolstering its national pride and gaining prestige on the international stage. President Xi Jinping pointed out that the government hoped to become a world leader in space exploration back in 2016. On the same day, Xu Dazhe, the Director of the China National Space Administration at the time, explained that projects in the industry - such as the third part of the moon exploration and further manned space flights - were aimed to solidify China’s position as a major power in the global space industry.
Getting Out of the United States’ Shadow
Another area that the Chinese government would like to get through with the CSS is the fact that it will be able to get out from under the United States’ shadow. Academics across the country have argued that China’s contributions to space haven’t exactly reflected the country’s status as a “great power.” With a space station of its own, China can finally build on its strengths and push the boundary of scientific innovation forward.
The International Space Station (ISS) already sponsors research that promotes scientific inquiry and several other innovations. From advancements in agriculture and medicine to improvements in automobile testing and more, the ISS has become a bedrock of innovation across the board. Sadly, Chinese astronauts have reportedly been denied the opportunity to take part in these research efforts.
China will be looking to launch its space station and finally conduct research. This can help bolster the country’s innovative capacity and keep it in pole position for being a “space superpower.” It is also noteworthy that the ISS is planned to be deorbited. By that time, only China’s space station may be live.
The country could use this to gain some strategic diplomatic advantage as countries looking to continue research in space will be compelled to come to it for help in the absence of any alternative. China already announced in 2018 that it would welcome all member countries of the United Nations to cooperate and collaborate aboard the CSS. When the ISS eventually gets deorbited, China could be in a pretty interesting position.