China’s launch in April of the main module for its latest orbit around the space station, for the wrong reasons, attracted more international attention than expected. After reaching an orbit, the main rocket launcher ominously tumbles back to earth in an ‘uncontrolled re-entry’. The debris landed in the Indian Ocean in May, briefly missing the Maldives, sparking criticism over how China is carrying out the launch of its heaviest rocket, the Long March 5B.
More launches as it comes anyway. The mission was the first of eleven needed to build China’s third and most ambitious space station by the end of 2022. Two more long March 5B rockets will contain additional modules, and other variants will launch smaller parts. Four missions, one of which is planned for June, will bring Chinese astronauts back into space after more than four years.
China’s first two space stations were prototypes of short duration, but they were meant to function for a decade or more. Mr. Xi, the Chinese leader, compared it to the “two bombs, one satellite” reminder of Mao Zedong’s era, which referred to China’s race to develop a nuclear weapon, mount it on an intercontinental ballistic missile, and ‘ to place a satellite in orbit. Like all of China’s achievements in space, it is presented as proof of the competence of the Communist Party.
The International Space Station, developed jointly by the United States, Russia and others, is nearing the end of its intended life in 2024. What happens next is unclear. NASA has proposed keeping the station running for a few more years; Russia has announced plans to withdraw by 2025.
If the station is put out of service, China could be the only game in the city for some time.
The station – as the first two, called Tiangong, or ‘Heavenly Palace’, will be able to accommodate three astronauts for long-term missions and as many as six for shorter periods. China has selected a team of 18 astronauts, some of whom are civilians (only one is a woman). The first three will spend three months in space, which would surpass the 33-day record for Chinese astronauts set in 2016.
Hao Chun, the director of China’s Manned Space Agency, told the news media that astronauts from other countries may visit, either aboard Chinese spacecraft or their own, even though they need a coupling mechanism “in line with Chinese standards”, which differs from those on the International Space Station. He said foreign astronauts had already learned Mandarin in preparation.