China Power

China’s Big Space Step

Plans for the launch of an unmanned spacecraft mark a further big step towards China’s own space station.

China’s fast developing space programme is set to take another significant step forward next month with the launch of a craft that will undertake the country’s first space docking with a space lab module that was launched in September.

Shenzhou-8 and its carrier rocket were reportedly transferred Wednesday morning on a railway to the launch pad. ‘Technicians completed testing on the assembling of Shenzhou-8 and the rocket after they were delivered to the launch centre at the end of August, said Lu Jinrong, the launch centre’s chief engineer,’ the official Xinhua News Agency reported. ‘In the next few days, the launch centre will continue testing the spacecraft and the rocket, and inject propellant before the final launch in early November, Lu said.’

How significant is this?

‘The Shenzhou 8 unmanned mission to dock with Tiangong-1 is part of step two of their long ago announced plans for human spaceflight,’ Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College, told me.

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‘Step 1 is to demonstrate manned spaceflight, and they completed that with Shenzhou 6,’ she said. ‘Step 2 is to demonstrate advanced capabilities required for an eventual space station. Tiangong and Shenzhou 8 are part of that, as Shenzhou 8, 9, 10 over the next two years will be to test docking, manoeuvring and later – missions 9 and 10 – long duration life support systems.’  

‘This is a big but not unexpected step as part of their incremental but ambitious programme. They are now where the US was with Gemini, for comparative purposes,’ she added, in reference to the project in the mid-1960s.

The launch of the Tiangong module last month was widely seen as a major stepping stone in China’s quest for its own space station. But as Johnson-Freesenoted, China’s ‘step 3’ plan for a larger space station is dependent on successfully meeting the challenges outlined for step 2, and the development of the Long March 5 heavy lift vehicle.  

‘That is currently underway, but behind schedule. It will likely be available for use – and it’s highly likely China will launch its space station – around 2020-2022,’ she said.

As the Washington Post noted this week, China launched its own space station programme after being rebuffed in its effort to join the International Space Station, mostly because of objections from the United States, which the Post notes is wary of the ‘Chinese programme’s military links and the sharing of technology with its chief economic and political competitor.’

Indeed, the US Congress was so concerned about China that a provision was included in NASA’s budget prohibiting NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from spending funds to ‘develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company.’

But Johnson-Freese questioned the effectiveness of such an approach.

‘The US restrictions on cooperating with China have, in my opinion, served little useful purpose and have perhaps even been counterproductive in pushing China to work faster and with more dedication on its own programme,’ she said.