China Launches Core Module for New Space Station

China Launches Core Module for New Space Station

China launched the core module, Tianhe, of its new space station this evening.  It is the first of almost a dozen launches to create and supply a three-module China Space Station. China already launched two small stations years ago, but this is a further step in its methodical human spaceflight program.

The 22.5 Metric Ton (MT) module lifted off from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island atop a Long March 5B rocket on April 28 at 11:22:30 pm Eastern Daylight Time (April 29, 11:22:30 am local time at the launch site).

Launch of China’s Tianhe core space station module on a Long March 5B rocket from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island. April 28, 2021 EDT (April 29 Beijing time). Screengrab from CGTN.

Delays in the rocket’s development led to delays in the China Space Station (CSS) program, but China still hopes to have it fully assembled by 2022.

China’s human spaceflight program is playing out at a measured pace. Sometimes portrayed as in a race with the United States, China actually is moving relatively slowly. In the 18 years since it launched its first “taikonaut” in 2003, China has launched only 11 people on six missions, most recently in 2016.

Two small (8.5 MT) space stations, Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2, were launched in 2011 and 2016.  Tiangong-1 was visited by two crews and an automated test vehicle. Tiangong-2 received only one crew and one automated vehicle.

Those were steppingstones to the CSS, or Tiangong-3, which will be a three-module space station to which crews and cargo resupply missions will be sent similar to several past Russian space stations and the International Space Station (ISS).

The Soviet Union launched the world’s first space station, Salyut 1, in 1971. The first U.S. space station was Skylab, launched in 1973. They each had only one docking port so there was no port for resupply ships, limiting crew durations.

Salyut 6 opened a new era in 1977.  With two docking ports, crew spacecraft (Soyuz) as well as cargo resupply spacecraft (Progress) could dock at the same time, enabling crews to remain for increasingly long periods of time. Salyut 7 and Mir followed. Mir (1986-2001) had multiple modules and multiple docking ports and hosted dozens of crews. One cosmonaut established a duration record of 14 months that remains the world record. He remained aboard Mir while other crew members came and went over that period of time.

Instead of building a follow-on to Mir, Russia joined the ongoing U.S./European/Canadian/Japanese ISS program in 1993 after the collapse of the Soviet Union opened the door to expanded U.S.-Russian cooperation.  The 400 MT multi-modular ISS is composed of the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) and the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS), which also includes modules from Europe and Japan and a Canadian robotic arm. ISS also has multiple modules and docking ports and is routinely resupplied by U.S., Russian and Japanese cargo spacecraft. ISS has been permanently occupied by international crews rotating on 4-6 schedules for more than 20 years.

In the history of space stations, Tiangong-3 therefore may seem unremarkable, but it is another step forward for China’s human spaceflight program. Tianhe will be joined by two more modules, Wentian and Mengtian, over the next year or so.  Shenzhou spacecraft will ferry crews back and forth and Tianzhou cargo spacecraft will deliver supplies.

China space expert Andrew Jones (@AJ_FI) reports that a Tianzhou will launch next month followed by a crew on Shenzhou-12 in June. Those are part of 11 launches to assemble, staff, and resupply the space station through 2022.

The module is 16.6 meters long with a maximum diameter of 4.2 meters.  China’s Xinhua news agency reports that it has a 10-year design life, but could last for 15 years.

Illustration of the Tianhe space station module displayed on CGTN. Screengrab.

Xinhua added that Shenzhou-12 will carry a crew of three and remain on the space station for three months. Another Tianzhou cargo ship and Shenzhou-13 also are planned for launch this year.

China is not part of the ISS because of a U.S. law that strictly limits space cooperation with China. Called the Wolf Amendment, it was originally sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) when he chaired the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.  Although he retired from Congress in 2015, the amendment is popular in Congress and included in the annual appropriations bill for NASA every year. The restrictions are due to China’s human rights abuses, theft of U.S. intellectual property, and other geopolitical issues.

There are advocates for changing or repealing the Wolf Amendment on the basis that space cooperation could be a bridge between the two countries as it is between the United States and Russia.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), the new chair of the space subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, told the Washington Space Business Roundtable today that he would like to be the sponsor of legislation to repeal the Wolf Amendment, but “when it’s justified,” not now. The situations in Taiwan, Hong Kong and “forced labor in concentration camps” preclude it in the short term, but “we also have to recognize they are a major player in space and someday in the future the opportunity to work with them for the benefit of all mankind is something we have to cling to.”

China is welcoming international participation in Tiangong-3, however. It is working through the U.N. Office of Outer Space Affairs to find scientists who want to fly experiments and European Space Agency astronauts have trained with Chinese taikonauts for potential future flights.

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