What’s Driving China’s Race to Build a Space Station?

What’s Driving China’s Race to Build a Space Station?
What’s Driving China’s Race to Build a Space Station?
What’s Driving China’s Race to Build a Space Station? Top

    The advantages of developing space capabilities are manifold. Satellites facilitate military and civilian communications. Human spaceflight garners international prestige, while also providing opportunities for cutting-edge research. Experiments conducted in space have resulted in numerous breakthroughs that have been used to address medical, environmental, and technological challenges back on Earth.

    China is seeking to enhance its capacity for scientific and technological innovation by building a large modular space station. Chinese leaders also hope that research conducted on the Chinese Space Station (CSS) will support their long-term goals for space exploration, including missions to the Moon and Mars. This page offers insight into the development of the CSS, compares China’s space station with those of other countries, and explores how China may use manned space missions to bolster domestic innovation.

    Planned Chinese Space Station

    China Achieves Human Spaceflight

    More than 80 countries have space programs that engage in activities ranging from the development of dual-use satellites to lunar exploration. Only three of these states have independently sent humans into space. The former Soviet Union and the United States achieved human spaceflight in 1961 against the backdrop of the Cold War space race. Four decades later, China joined this elite group with the 2003 launch of Lt. Col. Yang Liwei into Earth’s orbit on the Shenzhou-5 (“Divine Ship-5”). Yang orbited the Earth 14 times over a period of 21.5 hours.

    China formally launched its manned space program, known as Project 921, in September 1992. Chief objectives of the multi-phase Project 921 include achieving human spaceflight and developing and operating what Wu Ping, then-Deputy Director of China’s Manned Space Agency (CMS), called a “permanent” manned Chinese space station.

    China formally launched its manned space program, known as Project 921, in September 1992.

    A critical aspect of Project 921 was the development of the Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”) space laboratories that served as critical testbeds for gaining the technical know-how for operating the CSS. The 8.5 metric ton Tiangong-1 launched in September 2011 and enabled Chinese astronauts – or “taikonauts” – to practice rendezvous and docking maneuvers and carry out short-term missions in space. China lost communication with the space module in March 2016, and on April 2, 2018 the Tiangong-1 plunged through Earth’s atmosphere, scattering debris over the South Pacific.

    Chinese engineers applied lessons from the Tiangong-1 to improve the design of its successor, the Tiangong-2, which launched in September 2016. The Tiangong-2 featured a greater capacity for scientific experimentation and was therefore described by Wu Ping as a laboratory “in the true sense of the word.” According to China’s 2016 white paper on space activities, the Tiangong-2 offered a platform for China to master key capabilities, such as cargo transport and replenishment, necessary for operating a permanent space station.

    Milestones in China’s Manned Space Program

    Due to improvements in living quarters and life-support infrastructure, the module was able to host the two-man Shenzhou-11 crew for 30 days in late 2016. This marked China’s longest crewed mission to date. China successfully de-orbited the Tiangong-2 in July 2019. A third Tiangong space lab, capable of supporting three taikonauts for 40-day intervals, was planned but the program was later cancelled in favor of skipping to the development of a more advanced space station.

    Designing the Chinese Space Station

    Building on the success of the Tiangong missions, China constructed the core module of the CSS. Dubbed the Tianhe-1 (“Harmony of the Heavens-1”), the core module is 18.1 meters long and has a mass of 22 metric tons. The module was originally planned for entry into orbit sometime in 2018, but officials announced in March 2018 that the launch would be delayed. Reports indicate the delay was due to a failed launch in 2017 of the heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket that is needed to lift the module into orbit. The deployment of Tianhe-1 is not expected to take place until the first half of 2021, likely in April – nearly three years behind the original schedule.

    If successful, the core module will be joined by the Tianzhou-2 cargo and supply spacecraft, which will dock with the Tianhe-1 to deliver propellant as well as supplies for the taikonauts who will eventually live on the CSS. The Tianzhou-2 will have a mass of around 13.5 metric tons, with a cargo mass of around 6.5 metric tons. The spacecraft will launch on a Long March 7 medium-lift rocket, likely in May 2021.

    With the core module deployed and stocked, China will launch three taikonauts to live on the CSS. The launch is expected to take place in June 2021. This crewed mission, named Shenzhou-12, will be China’s seventh, and the first since the Shenzhou-11 mission in 2016. There are currently a total of four crewed missions planned, with 12 taikonauts in training to live on the CSS.

    In addition to the core module, the station’s basic configuration will eventually also consist of two experiment modules – the Wentian (“Quest for the Heavens”) and Mengtian (“Dreaming of the Heavens”) – permanently docked opposite each other in a T-shape structure. Each experiment module will have roughly the same length (14.4 meters) and mass (22 metric tons). Both modules are expected to be launched in 2022.

    Chinese engineers plan to outfit the CSS with a number of features. The Tianhe core will have five docking ports, as well as a robotic arm and internal racks for experimentation. The Wentian will also feature modular storage racks and a robotic arm, while the Mengtian will have a docking port to interface with visiting spacecraft, repair vehicles, and support modules. A space telescope, the Xuntian (“Heavenly Cruiser”), may also launch into orbit near the Chinese Space Station around 2024. It is expected to have a field of view 300 times the size of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

    If successfully completed, the CSS will be roughly one-sixth the mass of the International Space Station (ISS) and half the size of the decommissioned Russian Mir Space Station. The Chinese station is expected to have a total mass between 60 and 70 metric tons, while the ISS has a mass over 420 metric tons, and Mir had a mass of approximately 130 metric tons.1



    In terms of design, the CSS is likely to resemble Mir. Both the Chinese and Russian space stations were designed to feature a core module and multiple attaching components. The Mir had a slightly smaller base block that launched in February 1986. When fully assembled, Mir featured five additional modules – each with a mass between 11 and 19.7 metric tons – for conducting scientific and biological research and observing activities on Earth. By contrast, the ISS bears an “integrated truss structure” that supports dozens of payloads delivered by more than a dozen partner nations.

    The smaller size of the CSS may lend itself to operational efficiency and cost savings, but it comes with significant trade-offs. Reduced capacity for astronauts, equipment, and research may limit the utility of the station as a laboratory for scientific discovery. While Chinese engineers have noted that the station could be expanded via international cooperation, the CSS is designed to host three people for three- to six-month intervals (or six-person crews for shorter periods). The ISS, by contrast, can host six astronauts, or up to nine at shorter intervals.

    Additionally, the CSS is expected to have a shorter lifespan. Zhu Zongpeng, the chief architect of China’s space lab system, indicated in 2016 that the Chinese space station may stay in orbit for around ten years. Mir remained operational for 15 years before Russian controllers guided its descent into the South Pacific in 2001. The ISS, which launched in 1998, will have functioned for 26 years if deorbited as planned in 2024, or longer if its service life is extended beyond that.

    Funding the Manned Space Program

    Some Chinese officials have expressed concern about whether Beijing can afford to continue investing heavily in the manned space program. Official data indicate that China spent over RMB 20 billion ($2.90 billion) on the project between 1992 and 2005, and an additional RMB 15 billion ($2.17 billion) between 2005 and 2011. As of 2016, China allocated a greater share of its space budget to manned spaceflight (roughly 33 percent) than any other country. The US followed at around 27 percent.

    In terms of overall government funding for space activities, China outspent every country in the world in 2020, except for the United States. However, Beijing’s $8.9 billion in space funding was a fraction of the US’ $48 billion. One specific area where the Chinese government plans to boost investment is in space science – an area where China has particularly lagged behind the US. In 2015, NASA spent over $5 billion on space science while China spent just $110 million. China is expected to narrow this gap in the coming decades, and has already begun working to increase its cooperation with private investors.

    In terms of overall government funding for space activities, China outspent every country in the world in 2020, except for the United States.

    At present, it is difficult to estimate the full cost of building and operating a permanent space station. The ISS has high annual operating costs (expected to range between $3 and $4 billion through 2024) but is financed by multiple partner countries. For example, NASA is party to an ISS agreement with the Japanese, European, and Canadian space agencies that divides “common systems” operating costs. Within this framework, NASA shoulders 76.6 percent of the burden, while Japanese, European, and Canadian space agencies pay 12.8, 8.3, and 2.3 percent shares, respectively.

    China has not indicated whether it will seek cost-sharing arrangements with other countries. It has signed space station cooperation agreements with the Russian and European space agencies and the United Nations, but how much financial support such countries may be willing to provide is unknown.

    Rationale for Project 921

    High-level political and financial support for China’s space program has increased over the past several decades. The Chinese government noted in its latest white paper on space activities that China should be built “into a space power in all respects” and use its space program to enhance its “overall strength.” In addition, the Chinese government views manned spaceflight as a means of garnering international prestige and boosting national pride. This sentiment was voiced by now-retired Chinese leader Wu Bangguo in 2005 when he noted that the successful crewed Shenzhou-6 mission was of “great significance for elevating China’s prestige in the world and promoting China’s economic, scientific and national defense capabilities, and its national cohesiveness.”

    President Xi Jinping touted China’s aspiration to become a world leader in space exploration on China’s first National Day of Space Flight on April 24, 2016. On the same occasion, Xu Dazhe, then-Director of the China National Space Administration, explained that space industry projects (such as the “third part of manned space flight” and “third part of moon exploration”) outlined in the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) aim to make China a “major power” in the space industry. He added that China has only just begun leveraging its space capabilities.

    Progress notwithstanding, scholars at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) have argued in the past that the limited scope of China’s current contributions to space science neither measures up to the country’s “status as a great power,” nor supports the goal of “building an innovative nation.” They further emphasized that building a Chinese space station presents unparalleled opportunities for scientific discovery and technological innovation.

    Research conducted aboard the ISS promotes scientific inquiry and can result in beneficial “spinoff” technologies. These include advancements in medicine and agriculture, improvements in automobile safety testing, and even the development of a new line of golf clubs. Chinese taikonauts have been denied the opportunity to directly participate in such groundbreaking research, as the US and other spacefaring countries have restricted space cooperation with China and limited the transfer of sensitive technologies.

    Successfully launching the CSS would lend China its own platform for conducting research and strengthening China’s “independent innovative capacity.” The planned deorbiting of the ISS a few years after China deploys the CSS could even mean that there is a period in which China is the only country capable of hosting a permanent human presence in orbit. China could use this to gain diplomatic leverage, since countries interested in continuing research in space could be compelled to look to the Chinese space program in the absence of other alternatives. In a May 2018 statement, China announced that “all member states of the United Nations are welcome to cooperate with China to jointly utilize its future China Space Station.” The European Space Agency has already begun considering how they might coordinate joint ventures with China.

    Additionally, China hopes to use its manned space station as a stepping stone to further achievements in space. Wu Weiren, chief designer of China’s lunar exploration program, noted in 2016 that China’s long-term goals include an unmanned mission to Mars by 2020 – which China successfully launched in July 2020 – and establishing a manned research base on the Moon. Lt. Gen. Zhang Yulin, deputy commander of the China Manned Space Program, indicated that China will use the next 15 to 20 years to develop the requisite technical capabilities for conducting manned lunar missions. China’s leaders have also expressed a desire to send probes to Jupiter as part of their campaign to transform China into one of the top three space programs in the world by 2030. ChinaPower

    1. The mass of the CSS could increase by docking additional modules or vehicles.