THE LAUNCH OF the first of three modules of a permanent space station (above) marks another step forward for China’s human spaceflight programme.
Previous single-module space labs have allowed astronauts abroad for brief visits, but once fully assembled, the Tiangong Space Station will be crewed full-time by three astronauts and is expected to operate into the 2030s.
It will conduct experiments and offers China some opportunity for space diplomacy by hosting research projects and possibly astronauts from other countries’ space agencies, such as Russia and the EU (but not NASA unless the United States changes its laws forbidding it).
However, unlike the much larger International Space Station, a collaboration between the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia and the EU, China’s space station will be predominantly an all-Chinese affair to develop the core technology for Beijing’s ambitious civilian and military ambitions in space.
These include an eventually lunar landing and some form of continued human presence on the moon.
Technology development has been a distinctive characteristic of the space programme. Having a space station will add a sheen to China’s image as a technological leader, and like aircraft carriers, space stations are a badge of being a superpower.
The call by Newt Gingrich, the American politician who is seeking the Republican party’s presidential nomination, for the U.S. to establish a Moon base “by the end of my second term”, which, if it happens, would be 2020, throws down a gauntlet to China’s ambitious space program. “It is clearly in [the U.S.’s] interest,” he said, to acquire so much experience in space that we clearly have a capacity that the Chinese and the Russians will never come anywhere near to matching.”
China’s space scientists have nursed a long-term ambition to establish a lunar base for at least a couple of decades. Gradually, the reality of the country’s space program is catching up. An unmanned mission to the Moon is planned for next year. The recently published white paper on China’s space program publicly confirmed for the first time the scarcely secret goal of following that with a manned mission. It was vague about timing, saying only that the tasks for the next five years include conducting “studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing”.
As recently as a couple of years ago, space officials were talking about that happening in 2025 to 2030, but more recently 2025 is being mentioned as a by-the-latest date rather than as an at-the-earliest one, with a Moon base to follow by 2030. That coincidentally is the date Japan has pencilled in for setting up a manned Moon base.
Whether the Chinese, even if they got there before the Japanese (or the Russians who have similar ambitions), would now find the Americans already there is the new question. Certainly, if Americans put their minds to it they could pull it off, just as an earlier generation responded to President John F. Kennedy’s call in the face of the Soviet Union putting a man in orbit around the Earth to, within a decade, land an American on the Moon and bring him home. Whether Americans today have the optimism and the money is another matter.
NASA has Bush-era plans it can dust off, plans the Obama administration scaled back because of cost. Some U.S. legislators have called for NASA astronauts to return to the Moon for first time since 1972 by 2022. Gingrich proposes to involve the private sector, including in the development of space tourism and manufacturing, and to spur innovation and technological breakthroughs with both civilian and military applications. Yet eight years would be a tight deadline to pull off a mission of such complexity, regardless of how neatly it dovetails with election-campaign rhetoric. For one, a heavy lift rocket would have to be developed.
There is also the little matter of Gingrich both being nominated to run and then winning the Presidency. President Obama has expressed more interest in going to Mars than returning to the Moon.
The space world has long debated the relative scientific value of manned versus unmanned space exploration and whether returning to the Moon is a diversion from a grander goal of interplanetary travel. One alternative to having humans living on the Moon, or perhaps a first step towards that, would be to establish an unmanned lunar base. While that could be an adjunct to the International Space Station, Japan’s space agency has a plan to have a small but permanent automated base on the Moon run by humanoid robots by 2020. What odds China’s space officials are now looking at what more they could do with the robots they are planning to send to the Moon in 2017 to gather lunar samples if they left some behind?