China Moves to Become a World Space Superpower With Two Successful Launches
The experimental laboratory Tiangong-1, or “Heavenly Palace,” was launched on Oct. 29 and docked with the Shenzhou-8 five days later on Nov. 3.
In addition to practicing docking maneuvers, China aims to use the pair to observe the geography of Chinese farmland and conduct tests to ensure their crafts can sustain livable conditions in space. Two more missions, at least one manned, are planned with the Tiangong-1 within the next year.
Though China’s latest developments only place the country’s technology around where the U.S.’s was in the 1960s during the Gemini program, with each mission, China has proven its ability to grow much more rapidly than other countries have been able to.
"China has the advantage, 40-plus years later, of not having to start at the bottom of the learning curve on its human spaceflight program," said space expert at the U.S. Naval War College Joan Johnson-Freese.
China has excelled in its ability to catch up to the U.S. and Russia in part because of the highly efficient nature of their 10-year program. Where the U.S. has sent up two space vessels to practice space docking, China has only launched only one, which will instead remain in orbit for a longer period of time.
The “Heavenly Palace” is expected to remain in orbit for the next two years while China prepares to launch its own space station. Their proposed space station will be significantly smaller than the current International Space Station. At an approximate 60 tons, its weight would be just 15 percent of that of the International Space Station.
If the next few missions are as successful as the past two, and China begins launching its three-part station in 2020, the nation will claim the largest international manned presence in space.
This has come at a vulnerable time for the U.S., which retired its own space shuttle program in July this year. Russia, Japan, Canada and other European nations will also be affected by the shift. Pending the success of the full mission of the two orbiting spacecraft, China is poised to launch its space station in 2020, the same year Russia has proposed the International Space Station should be allowed to expire.
Secrecy about the nature of their space program had China barred from joining the International Space Station in the past; the U.S. in particular was wary of possible military motives that the Chinese Program, (run by the People’s Liberation Army), might have had.
Despite any issues the U.S. might have had with the Chinese space program, it has become a significant force, and is now poised to take over what can be called a significant element of the American identity.
On Monday a group of prominent former astronauts, (including Buzz Aldrin), sent a letter to Congress urging them to direct funds to NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Fearful that the U.S. will be quickly overtaken by Russia and China, the astronauts urged Congress members to invest in domestic means of taking Americans to space in rockets that have already flown to orbit several times.
“China is vigorously pursuing its human spaceflight program, and will surely be quick to point out it has a capability that the United States does not: human space transportation,” said the astronauts.
This program would enable the U.S. to stop relying on Russia for seats – or “buying rides” as the letter put it – to send American astronauts to the International Space Station.
The space race might be over, but the competition for dominance continues to be relevant, even now. It seems the timing for China to take the lead could not be better.
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