China’s great leap towards superpower status with space station test launch

The launch of the unmanned Tiangong 1 module comes in a year when the US has wound down its space shuttle fleet

Jonathan Watts in Beijing, Thursday 29 September 2011 21.02 BST

China marked a new milestone on its road towards superpower status on Thursday night by putting its first research module – called the Heavenly Palace – into orbit.

The unmanned Tiangong 1 laboratory, launched from a remote base in the Gobi desert, is a step towards the construction of a fully-fledged orbiting platform.

This latest demonstration of Beijing’s otherworldly ambitions comes in a year when the US has wound down its space shuttle fleet and its partners have said the International Space Station should be buried at sea in 2020.

China’s 10.5-metre cylinder will ride 220 miles into space on board the Long March 2F rocket that blasted off from the Jiuquan satellite launch centre.

It will remain in orbit for two years and be used by Chinese scientists and astronauts to practise rendezvous and docking techniques needed to construct bigger space structures.

Another vessel, Shenzhou 8, will launch later this year and attempt to link up with the lab.

If this is successful and life support systems within the module remain stable, manned missions will be tried next year and yuhangyuan [astronauts] will spend two weeks inside the lab.

Wu Ping, a spokeswoman, said these missions could include China’s first female astronauts.

Following China’s first manned space flight in 2003, the launch of the Heavenly Palace is the second stage in a 10-year programme to build a manned 60-tonne platform by 2020.

This could give China the largest habitable space platform. That title currently belongs to the International Space Station (ISS), which is supported by the US, Europe, Russia, Japan and Canada.

The 400-tonne ISS’s future is in doubt because of the high cost of ferrying supplies through space and the economic problems faced by its principal funders.

China’s political differences with the US have so far stymied hopes to draw the country into this international programme.

When the current commitments expire in 2020, Russian scientists have proposed that the ISS be left to fall into an ocean.

China attaches great political prestige to its space programme – as evidenced by launch events in Beijing and Jiuquan attended by president Hu Jintao and key politburo members.

At this stage, Beijing claims its programme is cheaper. While Russia and the US initially practised docking by sending up two vessels for each trial, China said it saves money by leaving one in space for an extended time.

“The US is still ahead – they sent a man to the moon 40 years ago,” said Fu Song, a professor at the school of aerospace at Tsinghua University.

“But there is the advantage for latecomers. The cost is less and wrong turns can be avoided. If the Tiangong is successful, it will be a significant symbol for the Chinese space industry.”

Though the hardware is based primarily on Russian technology, China says it has enhanced navigation and other systems.

The launch is part of a wider space strategy which has notched up several notable achievements in recent years.

In 2003, China became only the third country to independently put a man – Yang Liwei – in space.

Four years later, it put a satellite – the Chang-e – into lunar orbit and, more aggressively, proved the effectiveness of a satellite-busting rocket.

In 2013, it will collaborate with Russia to send a probe to Mars. Four years after that, the country’s scientists expect to land a lunar rover as a step towards a manned moon landing.

The Tiangong will provide useful preparation for all future missions, according to Ping.

The forward momentum of China’s programme stands in contrast to that of the old space powers. The US mothballed its space shuttle programme in July, when the Atlantis completed its final mission.

Now that Barack Obama has reversed plans for a new manned lunar mission, China is the only country with realistic plans to land humans on the moon.

Such developments could also add to concerns in Washington that China’s space push may be driven my military motives. This is dismissed by Chinese academics.

Jiao Weixin, professor in the school of earth and space at Peking University, said the spirit of space exploration now was different from the past.

“During the cold war, the Soviet Union and the US competed in a space race. Today, the trend is towards peaceful, international co-operation.

“China is involved for scientific reasons and to gain experience. It has no goal of surpassing other countries.”
Different trajectories

After edging out the Soviets and winning the race to land a human on the moon in 1969, the United States has enjoyed more than four decades unchallenged as the world’s dominant force in space. Today’s(Thursday) The launch on Thursday of the first stage of a new Chinese space station could be seen as the beginnings of a shift in that power.

That China has joined the US and Russia as the third nation with the capability of a permanent crewed presence in space is not, in itself, a significant challenge to American supremacy. Nasa launched its first habitable research laboratory, Skylab, in 1973, and even if China’s Tiangong-1 remains safely into orbit after its arrival, it is still likely to be at least another year before its astronauts are able to make any kind of extended-duration stay.

The wider concern of those who follow the US space programme is the converse trajectories the two nations appear to be taking in support of their ambitions in space. China, which has invested millions of dollars in recent years into a burgeoning space programme, now has a flagship piece of hardware already off the launchpad. Nasa currently has no manned launch capability of its own for crewed vehicles followingafter the retirement of the space shuttle fleet this summer. It is a situation that rankles with prominent figures in the US space community, among them Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, who last week lambasted the American programme as an embarrassment”embarrassing” that could soon be eclipsed by the achievements of other nations.

“For a country that did so much for so long to achieve a leadership position in space exploration and exploitation, this is viewed by many as lamentably embarrassing and unacceptable,” he told a congressional hearing on the future of space flight. “Nasa leaders enthusiastically assured the American people that the agency was embarking on a new age of discovery. But the termination of the shuttle, the cancellation of existing rocket and spacecraft programmes, the lay-off of thousands of aerospace workers [and] the outlook for American space activity through the next decade is difficult to reconcile with agency assertions.”

Nasa did, earlier this month, announce its vision of a future spacecraft, the Space Launch System, which will be the most powerful rocket ever built and is designed to carry astronauts farther into space than ever before. Its cost, estimated in leaked Nasa calculations at more than $62bn over the next 15 years, could yet prove a barrier and the first unmanned test flights are not scheduled until 2017.

In the shorter term, Nasa is contracting out work that was previously its lifeblood. Cargo, and eventually crew, transportation to the international space station is being tendered to commercial enterprises such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, established respectively by internet entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. SpaceX plans its first cargo transfer launch in November. Until commercial spacecraft are deemed safe enough, US astronauts must hitch rides aboard Russia’s Soviet-era Soyuz spacecraft, at a cost of up to $63m per seat.

But the Russian programme is embroiled in its own turmoil after an unmanned Soyuz failed on its way to the international space station last month, and the next manned mission was delayed until November. China’s progress, and uncertainty elsewhere, have led to renewed calls for greater partnership between the world’s space-faring nations, although US co-operation with the Chinese is specifically prohibited by an act of Congress.

“China has the technology but doesn’t have the spaceflight experience that we do,” said Leroy Chiao, a former ISS commander and shuttle astronaut, and advocate for closer ties. “Co-operation is the way forward. You can argue that Nasa and Russia did all this before but China started its programme in 2003 and in eight years has demonstrated more ambitious flights. It has a modern vehicle with sophisticated technology, so this isn’t just a copy of Skylab. It leaves China on the verge of a major step forward.”Copy ends

Richard Luscombe in Miami

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