The core module, currently the largest spacecraft developed by China, was launched into low earth orbit by a Long March-5B rocket, marking the first step of China’s efforts to build its own station in two years.
“Currently, the facilities and equipment of Wenchang launch center are in good condition, and all the personnel participating in the program are making concerted efforts for the complete success of the mission,” according to a statement on the website of China Manned Space Agency before the launch.
It’s expected to operate for 10 years — which could be extended to 15. Eleven launches including four crewed missions and four cargo missions are scheduled in the next two years. The first crewed mission is expected to be launched in June of this year — sending astronauts to orbit for about three months, during which the life support system and maintenance will be tested.
China launched its first manned space flight in 2003 — more than 40 years after NASA. But as the nation has grown richer and more powerful in recent decades, its space program has accelerated.
“China is interested in demonstrating to the world, and to its own people, that it is a world class player in human spaceflight and cutting edge science,” said David Burbach, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College. Burbach spoke in a personal capacity, not on behalf of the US Navy.
“International cooperation also helps China’s scientific community to learn from peers in other nations. Diplomatically, science cooperation helps portray China as a normal, cooperative world power, and in the case of cooperation with US allies in Europe and elsewhere, likely Beijing appreciates driving a bit of a wedge between those allies and the US.”
There’s been very little cooperation between the US and China in space. In 2011, US Congress passed an act to bar NASA from having any bilateral contact with individuals of the Chinese space program because of national security fears.
What’s next for ISS?
What lies ahead for the aging ISS is unclear.
“The hope has been to commercialize the station, but it’s not clear much progress has been made or even what commercialization would mean in practice. ISS is probably not ideally fitted out as a hotel for space tourists, and it’s not clear there’s much business interest in using ISS for zero gravity R&D,” said Burbach.
“In theory lack of a buyer, so to speak, might mean abandoning ISS and de-orbiting it, letting up burn up like the Mir station twenty years ago. I think it will be very difficult politically for the US to abandon a permanent presence in Earth orbit when the Chinese *do* have a station of their own,” he said via email.
Burbach said that the ISS had been much more international that any other space project, with the close involvement of Russia, Japan, Canada and European countries. However, it was unlikely that US-Russian cooperation would be a cornerstone of future projects, he said. Nor did he expect any softening of the US stance toward working with China in space.
“The US is making its return to the Moon program — Artemis — very international, with ESA, Canada, and Japan all contributing major components, and involving new partners too like the UAE,” he said, referring to the European Space Agency.
“The overall theme is one of the US strengthening relations with its friends, not using space to try to build a bridge to rivals,” he said.