The Chinese government continues to push for autonomy in space, and it recently launched one of the most important endeavors toward this goal. Last month, the country launched its longest crewed mission ever, kicking its ambitions for a space station into high gear.
In the middle of October, a Long March -2F rocket housing the Shenzhou-13 spacecraft launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre. The rocket carried three crew members with the aim of continuing work on China’s attempt at a space station.
A Milestone for China
Following an elaborate sendoff ceremony, the pilots, Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping, and Ye Guangfu, all boarded the spaceflight and blasted off to space. Their job is to live and work on Tianhe, the living component vessel of China’s space station, for six months. As part of their mission, the astronauts will conduct tests on some of the critical technology components and robotics on Tianhe, improving the vessel’s ability to support the space station.
The astronauts will also verify the functionality of onboard life support systems on Tianhe while focusing on other scientific experiments.
As expected, it appears the Chinese space authorities have selected the best hands they could find for this project. Zhai Zhiang, a former fighter jet pilot, performed the first spacewalk for China back in 2008. Wang Yaping has experience in experimentation, having led a science expedition while traveling on one of the country’s earlier space expeditions. As for Ye Guangfu, this will be his first foray beyond Earth’s surface.
Speaking to reporters, the astronauts said they were looking forward to the trip. Considering its expected length of six months, they acknowledged the challenge it will pose. Regardless, they showed confidence in their ability to get things done.
Zhai pointed out they had been training together for about three years, so they understood each other considerably. Regardless of the difficulties, he believes in their ability to overcome them.
Escaping the ISS Hold
The importance of this Chinese mission can’t be overstated. China has been at the forefront of technological innovation for decades but hasn’t quite made headway in space.
Things are worse since the country was barred from the International Space Station (ISS). Primarily built by the United States, the ISS has been home to astronauts from 15 countries - including Malaysia, Brazil, and South Africa. China was barred in 2011 when Congress passed a law restricting American contact with the Chinese space program as part of “concerns” about national security.
In general, there was never any specific reason for the Chinese ban. “National security” has been used to justify a wide variety of actions and concepts that have little, if anything, to do with national security. With the United States unwilling to play ball, China’s on its own to build a space station.
The first phase of the ISS project has been completed. In September, Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo, astronauts who had been in space for three months, returned to Earth from the Chinese space station.
CGTN showed footage of the astronauts splashing down in the Gobi Desert, where off-road vehicles and transport services met them. They had been in space since June 17, conducting two spacewalks and even deploying a mechanical arm.
Interestingly, China’s military - which controls the country’s space program - has given very few details about it. It is expected that successive crews will continue to make cyclical trips to space for the next two years, as they hope to launch the space station by 2024. The Chinese space agency is also looking to launch up to eleven missions to the space station by the end of next year. Of those missions, at least two will be crewed, delivering two lab modules to the structure.
The ISS’s Days Could Be Numbered
Interestingly, the ISS is winding down. The station was completed in 2011 after decades of development, but the agreement between NASA and its international partners is expected to expire by 2024.
Bill Nelson, NASA’s administrator, has supported NASA’s extension of the ISS through 2030; however, Congress has refused to extend funding for it beyond 2024. An initiative like that, without funding from Congress, would require the agreement of several other top stakeholders in the ISS, including Canada, Russia, and Japan.
NASA is reported to have been evaluating private space station proposals. This way, NASA could partner with private companies to keep the ISS alive or develop a new one. Regardless of what happens to the ISS, China is moving ahead quickly with its own endeavors.