Chinese astronauts, known as taikonauts, and a ground crew are working to finish their country’s first permanent orbit space station and the world’s second by the end of the year, official media say.
That milestone will boost China’s national pride and provide it with new channels for economic development and a potential new tool for military use on the ground, analysts say.
The space program furthers China’s goal of being “strong and prosperous” by 2049, said Dexter Roberts, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Asia Security Initiative and author of “The Myth of Chinese Capitalism.” That year marks the centenary of Communist Party rule in China.
“Developing the economy, becoming richer and increasing national prestige globally and becoming stronger geopolitically are very, very clear goals of the party,” he said.
A crew aboard the Shenzhou-14 spacecraft began six months of work on the Tiangong space station last month, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Personnel in space and on the ground will finish building the space station, expanding it from a single-module structure to a triple-module national space laboratory, Xinhua said.
The US space agency, NASA, prohibits China from using the International Space Station for military security reasons, which prompted China to embark on its own 10 years ago. China launched its most extensive space program in the 1960s.
Pride and projection of power
China’s space station has been designed to be a “versatile space laboratory” that can hold 25 “cabinets” for experiments such as comparing biological growth mechanism at different gravitational levels, Xinhua said.
As carried out on the space station and other space platforms, research on biology, life systems, medicine and materials is expected to “add to humanity’s understanding of basic science,” the Office of Information from the Council of State in a perspective of the program in January.
Other countries have already used China’s satellite services, including the BeiDou satellite navigation system, which was made available to Pakistan two years ago. Those systems can study the consequences of disasters and help launch satellites.
Officials in Beijing have not said whether the space station will help the People’s Liberation Army.
Space programs, including BeiDou, have a military and security side, said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington.
“The Chinese will argue that by using (the) BeiDou system, it can navigate the weather, it can forecast natural disasters, and it can also use the satellites to investigate and explore the terrain,” he said.
“I think that’s an example of how Chinese space technology is having a real impact on countries on Earth,” Yun said. But, he told her, “we all know it’s just a narrative.”
The People’s Liberation Army could technically dock military equipment systems in space or use satellites to survey the ground, experts told VOA. China has the third strongest armed forces in the world, a source of alarm to the West and smaller Asian countries.
Chinese President Xi Jinping will likely highlight the space station as an achievement during the party’s national congress expected before the end of the year, Yun said. Experts say Xi is likely to seek a congressional nomination for a third five-year term as party general secretary.
“National prestige and security” are top concerns for Chinese leaders as they complete their space station, said the Atlantic Council’s Roberts.
The Chinese government is probably pushing the commercial side of its space program because it wants to reach NASA’s scale, he said.
Chinese leaders can hope to develop their own aerospace technology through the space station, said Yan Liang, professor and chair of economics at Willamette University in the US state of Oregon. Some of the current components could be imports, he said.
“I definitely think that with the communication aspect being about big data and all these other high-tech industries, it’s definitely in China’s interest to be able to do that and then maybe export to other countries,” Liang said.
Tiangong’s first module was christened last year. It operates 340 miles above the Earth’s surface, farther than the International Space Station.
After a Chinese Shenzhou-14 crew arrives at the space station, it will begin research projects and conduct spacewalks from the laboratory module, Xinhua reported.