SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft and super heavy rocket – the gleaming stainless steel rocket envisioned as a “fully reusable transportation system” – dominates the global news landscape. Starship has a lift capacity of 150 metric tonnes to low earth orbit (LEO) in its reusable version, and 250 metric tonnes in its expendable version.
Much depends on its successful launch to orbit: making access to space inexpensive, and developing sustainable missions to the Moon and Mars. SpaceX has stated that Starship will be able to carry 100 people on long duration interplanetary flights and help in the construction of a Moon base. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk predicts that the cost to launch one Starship will be $10 million or less, compared to the more expensive $67 million per launch for the Falcon 9 and $97 million for the Falcon Heavy in 2023. (Notably, price tags for both the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy went up from $62 million and $90 million respectively to $67 million for the Falcon 9 and $97 million for the Falcon Heavy in 2022.) Others argue that Starship will not meet those expectations of $10 million per launch but instead cost between $100 million to $250 million per launch.
Still, given its massive lift capacity, the cost-per-kg to LEO for Starship could be between $1,500 to $2,500, with some even more radical predictions – like Musk saying that Starship will charge $100/kg, much lower than the Falcon 9 at $2,720/kg and Falcon Heavy reusable at $1,700/kg. If the price tag of $100/kg to LEO turns out to be true, Starship would be revolutionary in bringing down the costs of launch so radically.
However, Starship’s first test flight failed to make orbit in April 2023 and SpaceX is now awaiting for a license from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a second test that could come as early as October of this year.
The intense focus on Starship has created popular assumptions that the United States – and primarily SpaceX – stands alone in developing a super heavy rocket for purposes of bringing down launch costs and enabling missions to Mars. It is less well known and far less understood in the U.S. strategic community that China is developing a super heavy lift reusable rocket as well: the Long March 9.
Originally planned as an expendable rocket, the Long March 9 will be China’s super heavy rocket with a capacity to launch 150 tonnes to LEO and 50 tonnes to lunar transfer orbit. This rocket has, since its conception around 2016, seen a radical shift in design and is now being developed as a reusable rocket, as per an official announcement by China on April 24 during its spaceflight day celebrations.
The development of a heavy lift rocket is now supported by China’s 14th Five Year Plan (2021-2025), and reusable rockets are identified as a key goal in China’s 2021 White Paper on Space Activities. The target date for the three-stage Long March 9 basic design model’s first launch is 2030, seven years from now. The two-stage reusable version of the Long March 9 is scheduled for an initial launch in 2040.
As per Yang Mengfei, the chief engineer for the Chang’e 5 lunar sample return probe, there is a sense of urgency within Beijing to grasp the strategic significance of the Moon and utilize lunar resources to advance China’s comprehensive national power capacities. Proposals to mine resources on the Moon have been submitted to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) National Committee and projects are underway at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) to mature technologies to develop a space logistic system spanning the solar system, allowing China to economically benefit from the resources in space by 2100.
In order to accomplish China’s ambitious space goals – like a lunar research base, mining, asteroid exploration, human missions to the Moon and Mars, as well as the construction of space-based solar power (SBSP) satellites – successfully developing a super heavy lift rocket like the Long March 9 will be a game changer. The goals of the Long March 9 super heavy rocket are to support the development of China’s International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), scheduled for 2036, and support missions to Mars as well as help construct SBSP satellites.
As per Gu Mingkun, a senior rocket designer at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), the baseline model of the Long March 9 will be a three-stage rocket that is about 110 meters in length. Its ability to carry 50 tonnes to Earth-Moon transfer orbit will be crucial for the construction of the lunar permanent base and mining facilities.
The first basic model will have the first stage reusable. The second model of the Long March 9 will have two stages, again with the first stage reusable. The Long March 9 thus aims to bring down the cost of launch for China. China’s Long March 5, capable of carrying 25 tonnes to LEO and 14 tonnes to geostationary transfer orbit, costs about $3,000/kg to LEO. The Long March 9 is forecasted to cost half of that, so about $1,500/kg to LEO – putting it exactly in line with Starship’s estimates.
Based technologies are already under development. For example, a super heavy lift rocket requires large propellant storage tanks. CALT revealed the development of a 10-meter-diameter rocket tank in March 2023, double that of the 5-m-diameter tank for the Long March 5. The project to build the large propellant tank reportedly took six years.
Hu Zhenggen, deputy chief designer of heavy duty launch vehicles, indicated that by developing an ultra large diameter tank structure that will be part of the Long March 9, China now possesses capacities for high-end manufacturing supported by an upgraded Chinese industrial base that can develop such a strategic rocket.
Already, China has tested reusable technology with its YF-100N engine built by the Academy of Aerospace Propulsion Technology. The YF-100N has a 130-ton thrust engine and made use of “3D printing, automatic welding, and intelligent assembly” to build its components. The YF-100N will be utilized to build the Long March 5G, predicted to launch by 2027. The Long March 5G will be capable of sending 27 tonnes to trans-lunar injection and used for reusable transportations to the Tiangong space station, and for sending humans to the Moon.
China’s plan to send humans to the Moon by 2030 was confirmed by Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), during a press conference in May 2023. Lin specified that the goals of the manned mission is to master “key technologies such as Earth-moon manned roundtrip, lunar surface short-term stay, human-robot joint exploration, accomplishing multiple tasks of landing, roving, sampling, researching and returning, and forming an independent capability of manned lunar exploration.”
The goals of China’s super heavy lift rocket, the Long March 9, are clear and strategic: to build China’s capacities to establish a base on the Moon, develop a presence in gravitational strategic stable zones like the Earth-Moon and Earth-Sun Lagrange points, build space-based solar power satellites with in-orbit assembly and manufacturing, and eventually mature this end-to-end space logistic systems at very low costs.
Be wary of a tendency in the United States and the West of downplaying China’s technological capabilities, which in this case manifests in the assumption that China will not succeed in building a reusable rocket as per the deadline set. China has a long-standing record of making strategic choices and establishing plans. Among other examples, similar long-term planning and funding strategies allowed China to master ship building technology and emerge as the global leader; leapfrog over established competitors to be the world leader in 5G networks; construct the first quantum-based satellite; test the first methane rocket; as well as dominate the supply chain of rare earth elements.
China has now taken the official decision to build a super heavy rocket after years of feasibility studies and project designs awaiting state approval and funding. That phase of uncertainty is now over and funding, policy, and regulation supports the development of the Long March 9. If successful, the Long March 9 super heavy reusable rocket will change the game of space for China and enable it to dominate space access and use.