On October 16, China launched its most ambitious human space mission yet, the Shenzhou 13, to the Tianhe core module of China’s permanent space station (Tiangong) in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The crew of three astronauts (Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping and Ye Guangfu) will be staying on the Tianhe for six months, the longest stint for Chinese astronauts so far, if accomplished successfully. Earlier missions, including the Shenzhou 12, the first human mission to the Tianhe, were for a period of three months.
The Shenzhou 13 astronauts arrived safely and have settled into the Tianhe, including opening the hatch of the Tianzhou 3 cargo spacecraft for their supplies.
This mission, decades in the making and launched on schedule as per stated deadlines, has five critical implications for China and its space ambitions.
First, under the direction of President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China’s aim is to build space logistics and capacity for a permanent presence, first in LEO and then in cislunar space (space between the Earth and the Moon). This operational space domain is highlighted in speeches given by Xi to members of the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) and the PLA Astronaut Corp. Accomplishing China’s longest human space mission in LEO is a step toward building such a permanent presence, something critically important for China as it raises the stakes of its ambition for both the economic and military contributions of space to its grand strategy.
Second, the Shenzhou 13 displayed a logistic chain of space infrastructure that includes the core module, Tianhe, and the cargo spacecraft Tianzhou 2 and 3. The China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) developed a radial docking technology for the Shenzhou 13’s automated rendezvous and fast docking to the bottom of Tianhe, requiring maintenance of continuous altitude and orbit control. CAST explained how the Shenzhou 13 and its radial rendezvous was different from the front and rear dockings used by the Shenzhou 12 mission as well as Tianzhou 2 and 3: “For front and rear dockings, there is a 200-meter holding point for the craft, enabling them to maintain a stable attitude [sic] in orbit even when engines are not working. However, radial rendezvous does not have such a midway stopping point, and it requires continuous attitude [sic] and orbit control.” The astronauts will install transfer gears linking the two robotic arms for the core module to be utilized for future construction.
Third, the Shenzhou 13 is a step forward toward building capacities for larger space stations. In continuing the development of its Tiangong space station, the National Natural Science Foundation of China allocated $2.3 million for Chinese scientists to study the feasibility of in-orbit assembly of a kilometer-wide space station as part of China’s 14th Five Year Plan (2021–25). The thrust of this particular project is to bring down the weight of construction materials to be launched to space, so that more materials can be launched at lower cost. This has strategic implications for China’s Space Based Solar Power (SBSP) plans, which will require in-orbit assembly of SBSP satellites to collect solar power in space and beam it back to Earth.
Long Lehua, a key designer of China’s Long March rockets, indicated in a presentation in July 2021 that around 100 Long March 9 heavy lift rockets (which can launch up to 140 metric tons to LEO) would be required to construct a 10,000-ton SBSP infrastructure in GEO. He dwelled on the idea of making the Long March 9 reusable.
This aspect of reusability was referred to by Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as he responded to a question about a Financial Times report that “China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August that circled the globe [in LEO] before speeding towards its target, demonstrating an advanced space capability that caught US intelligence by surprise.” Zhao specified that the reusable spacecraft shed its booster, with the main capsule reentering the atmosphere. In September 2020, China had tested a human spacecraft that landed back on Earth, drawing comparisons to the U.S. X 37B.
On the one hand, if the August launch was indeed a test of reusable spacecraft technology as claimed by China, it has consequences for Chinese space goals like building a large permanent structure in space, a research station on the Moon, space solar power satellite infrastructure, a Mars sample return mission, a Mars human landing system, a Mars base, and launch of its large satellite constellation of about 12,992 satellites called Hongyan. On the other hand, the plausible scenario of China testing its first nuclear capable hypersonic missile that traversed LEO and can reach any target on Earth has deep-seated consequences for the Limited Test Ban Treaty (1963) that bans the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, underwater, and in outer space, as well as the Outer Space Treaty (1967) that bans the location of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in space.
Fourth, the significance of China’s civil-military fusion space program is evident in choosing PLA Army, Air Force, Astronaut Corp, and now Strategic Support Force senior officers, Major General Senior Zhai Zhigang, Senior Colonel Wang Yaping and Senior Colonel Ye Guangfu as the three Shenzhou 13 astronauts. All three astronauts report to General Li Shangfu, commander-in-chief of China’s manned space program and former deputy commander of the PLASSF.
Fifth, the fact that China is launching its space missions in line with long-standing deadlines implies that we need to keep future stated deadlines in our strategic mapping of outer space. This strategic map should include China’s ambitions of an asteroid mission (2022), launching the Chang’e 6 lunar South Pole sample return (2024), building SBSP satellites in LEO (2025) and in geosynchronous orbit by 2030, the heavy lift Long March 9 to be flight tested in 2030, the launch of the Chang’e 7 (aimed at surveying the lunar South Pole in 2030), a Mars sample return mission (2030), the Chang’e 8 (2035), the establishment of a lunar base (2036-2040), and a Mars base (2045).
As per Xi’s guidelines, China aspires to be a leader in space collaboration, space power projection, space technology demonstration, and deep space exploration and utilization, guided by strict adherence to his guiding thoughts for a new era. Under his leadership, China has embarked on an assertive foreign policy, established a separate military space service, and called for the critical importance of viewing space as part of China’s overall national security and economic power. The steady meeting of deadlines is gradually building China into a spacepower to be reckoned with in the 21st century.