China’s April launch of the main module for its newest orbiting space station attracted more international attention than expected for all the wrong reasons. After reaching orbit, the main rocket booster crashed threateningly back to Earth in what is known as “uncontrolled reentry”. The debris landed in the Indian Ocean in May, narrowly missing the Maldives and leading to criticism of how China is launching its heaviest missile, the Long March 5B.
More launches like this one are coming 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 missiles will carry additional modules, and other variants will launch smaller parts. Four missions, one planned for June, will bring Chinese astronauts back into space after more than four years.
China’s first two space stations were short-lived prototypes, but these are meant to work for a decade or more. Mr. Xi, the Chinese leader, likened it to Mao Zedong’s “Two Bombs, One Satellite” admonition, which referred to China’s race to develop a nuclear weapon, mounted it on an ICBM, and launched a satellite . Like all of China’s achievements in space, it is touted as evidence of the strength of the Communist Party-led state.
The International Space Station, jointly developed by the United States, Russia and others, is nearing the end of its planned life in 2024. What happens after that is unclear. NASA has suggested keeping the station in operation for a few more years. Russia has announced that it will withdraw by 2025.
If the station goes out of service, China could be the only game in town for some time.
The station – as the first two are called Tiangong or “Heavenly Palace” – can accommodate three astronauts for long-term missions and up to six for shorter periods of time. China selected a team of 18 astronauts, some of whom are civilians (only one is a woman). The first three are slated to spend three months in space, which would beat the 33-day record set for Chinese astronauts in 2016.
Hao Chun, director of China’s manned space agency, told state news media that astronauts from other nations would be allowed to visit aboard Chinese or their own spacecraft, although they would require a docking mechanism “by Chinese standards,” which is different from those on the ship International space station. He said some foreign astronauts were learning Mandarin in preparation.