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 seeks 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, deputy director of China’s Manned Space Agency (CMS), has 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 is the development of Tiangong (“Heavenly Vessel”) space laboratories that serve as critical testbeds for gaining the technical know-how for operating the CSS. The 8.5 metric ton (MT) 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. Despite losing communication with the space module in March 2016, Chinese engineers applied lessons learned to improve the design of its successor, the Tiangong-2, which launched in September 2016. The defunct Tiangong-1 plunged through Earth’s atmosphere on April 2, 2018. Its debris is reported to have landed somewhere in the South Pacific.
The Tiangong-2 featured a greater capacity for scientific experimentation and is therefore considered by Wu Ping a laboratory “in the true sense of the word.” According to China’s 2016 white paper on space activities, the Tiangong-2 offers a platform for China to master key technologies, such as cargo transport and replenishment, necessary for operating a permanent space station. 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 unaided for 40-day intervals, was planned but the program was later canceled.
Building on the success of the Tiangong missions, China has built the core module of the CSS. 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 is due to a failed launch of the heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket that is needed to lift the module into orbit. While the module passed a final review in September 2019, indicating it is nearly ready for flight, its deployment is not scheduled to take place until the first half of 2020.
Milestones in China’s Manned Space Program
Designing the Chinese Space Station
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 mass between 60 and 70 MT – this number may increase with vessels or additional modules docked – while the ISS has a mass over 420 MT, and Mir had a mass of approximately 130 MT.
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 taikonauts for 3 to 6-month intervals (or six-person crews for shorter periods).
Although more recently constructed than either Mir or the ISS, 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, and the ISS, which launched in 1998, will have functioned for 26 years if deorbited as planned in 2024.
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. By contrast, the ISS bears an “integrated truss structure” that supports dozens of payloads delivered by fifteen partner nations.
The CSS’s core module, dubbed the Tianhe-1 (“Harmony of the Heavens”), will be 18.1 meters long and have a mass of 22 MT when launched in 2020. The station’s basic configuration is also expected to consist of two experiment modules, the Wentian and Mengtian, (“Quest for the Heavens” and “Dreaming of the Heavens,” respectively) 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 MT). This design is akin to that of Mir, which had a slightly smaller Base Block that launched in February 1986. Once fully assembled, Mir featured five additional modules—each with a mass between 11 and 19.7 MT—for conducting scientific and biological research and observing activity on Earth.
Chinese engineers plan to outfit the Tianhe core with 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, support modules, and repair vehicles. A space telescope, the Xuntian (“Which Takes to the Heavens”), may also launch into orbit near the Chinese Space Station around 2022. It is expected to have a field of view 300 times the size of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.
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 20 billion yuan ($2.90 billion) on the project between 1992 and 2005, and an additional 15 billion yuan ($2.17 billion) between 2005 and 2011. Today, China allocates a greater share of its space budget to manned spaceflight (roughly 33 percent) than any other country. The US follows at around 27 percent.
In terms of overall government funding for space activities, China outspent every country in the world in 2018, except for the US. However, Beijing’s $5.8 billion in space funding was a fraction of the US’ $40.1 billion. The Chinese government plans to boost investment in space science, an area where it has historically 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 2018, except for the US.
At present, it is difficult to estimate the full cost of building and operating a permanent space station. By comparison, 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, the US shoulders 76.6 percent of the burden, while the 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, as noted in a report by the Project 2049 Institute, 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 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, who serves as the administrator of the China National Space Administration, explained that the 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, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) scholars 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 emphasize 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 systematically 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 around the time of the ISS’ deorbiting would lend China its own platform for conducting research and strengthening China’s “independent innovative capacity.” Operating the station could also enable China to leverage diplomatic opportunities. Countries interested in continued 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.