The Role of International Cooperation in China’s Space Station Plans

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WASHINGTON — The annual International Astronautical Congress (IAC) offers an opportunity to get a global perspective on space efforts often lacking elsewhere. That is, when delegates from other nations can actually attend. This year’s IAC, held two weeks ago in Toronto, was marked by the absence of top Chinese and Russian officials, who were denied — or, at least, somehow unable to obtain — visas for the event, for reasons never made clear by conference organizers or Canadian officials.

However, whatever issues that prevented officials from the China National Space Administration and Roscosmos from attending were not blanket prohibitions against all Chinese and Russian participants. Some delegates from both countries, primarily from industry and academia, were able to attend. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation had a large exhibit as well, showing off models of Long March rockets, the Chang’e-3 lander, and Yutu rover.

One presentation in particular shed some light on China’s long-term human spaceflight plans, which center on the development of a permanent space station in low Earth orbit in the early 2020s. While those plans have been widely publicized, what hasn’t been as well known is the role of international cooperation in that effort.

“The Chinese people stand ready to work together with people from all over the world,” said Zhou Lini of the Center for National Security and Strategic Studies at China’s National University of Defense Technology in a presentation at the IAC on September 30.

International cooperation in China’s human spaceflight program has been limited so far. A few Shenzhou missions have flown experiments from Canada and Europe. Russia supported development of Chinese spacecraft development and astronaut training, and also provided one spacesuit used on China’s first — and, to date, only — spacewalk on the Shenzhou-7 mission in 2008 (a second spacesuit used in the spacewalk was developed in China.) However, China’s human spaceflight program has otherwise relied exclusively on domestic resources, capabilities, and personnel.

However, in her presentation and accompanying paper, Zhou suggested China would be open to far more significant cooperation with other nations as it develops its space station. That three-person station, as currently envisioned, would consist of three modules: a core module named “Tianhe” and two experiment modules, “Xuntian” and “Tianwen.” The three modules would join together at a central node, giving the station an appearance not unlike the Soviet/Russian Mir station at an early phase of its life.

Zhou suggested that China would be open to having other nations contribute modules to the station. “China’s space station will still have three docking locations for other modules,” she said, referring to three unoccupied docking ports on that central node. (One of those three, in illustrations of the station, is occupied by a visiting Shenzhou spacecraft; presumably at least one additional module would need to include a Shenzhou docking port.)

Those modules, she said, could either be developed by other nations independently, or jointly with China. “US, Russia, ESA, and Japan may all have the ability to develop experiment modules and collaborate with China,” she said.

The concept of other nations developing modules for China’s space station is supported by comments made last month by Yang Liwei, China’s first astronaut and currently deputy director of the China Manned Space Agency. “We’ve reserved a platform to cooperate with other countries in missions by having designed interfaces for our space modules so that they can dock with modules of other countries,” he said at a meeting of the Association of Space Explorers last month in Bejing, as reported by the state-run news agency Xinhua.

Zhou said that China would also be open to flying astronauts from other nations. All Shenzhou missions to date have flown only Chinese astronauts, and the country recently announced it would soon select a new round of astronauts, including both test pilots and engineers (although, curiously, ruling out selecting any women in this upcoming round.) However, space station missions might offer more opportunities to fly “guest” astronauts in much the same way the American and Soviet/Russian programs have over the years.

“The most important role for the space station is to accommodate astronauts for scientific research,” Zhou said. Those international astronauts could be trained and flown by China, but she said it might also be possible for the station to accommodate visits by crewed spacecraft from other nations.

Another role for international cooperation could be in logistics. China is developing its own cargo spacecraft, called Tianzhou, to carry supplies to the station and dispose of trash from it. Tianzhou will fly to the station on China’s Long March 7 rocket, also under development, from the new Wenchang spaceport on Hainan island.

However, Zhou suggested that other cargo spacecraft could also support the Chinese station, noting the redundancy the International Space Station currently enjoys by the different cargo spacecraft servicing it. “Progress, ATV, and HTV are welcome,” she said, referring to cargo spacecraft from Russia, Europe, and Japan, respectively. (Europe, though, does not plan to produce additional ATVs after the launch of the fifth such spacecraft to the ISS this summer.)

Missing from that list of vehicles, though, were the two American commercial cargo vehicles currently supporting the ISS, Cygnus and Dragon. Zhou, in response to an audience question, indicated that was an oversight and not a deliberate exclusion. “We want to cooperate with Dragon,” she said.

Whether Dragon, or any other American vehicle, could dock with or otherwise support a Chinese space station likely faces greater political rather than technical barriers. A liberalization of export control policy in the United States for spacecraft and their components still explicitly prohibits the export of such items to China, which would, at the very least, hinder the technical interchanges needed to support such efforts.

In addition, while Zhou noted that China has “started dialogues and exchanges” with the United States in the area of human spaceflight, those efforts have been on hold in the US for the last few years: provisions in appropriations bills that fund NASA have prohibited bilateral cooperation between the agency and its Chinese counterparts.

“We do have to deal with the realities of politics and diplomacy,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden during a “heads of agencies” press conference at the IAC on September 29. “The prohibition is aimed mostly at human spaceflight, so we don’t collaborate or cooperate with them there.”

Those realities could change in the near future. The politician largely responsible for the existing prohibition is Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who chairs the subcommittee of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. He has frequently expressed concerns about human rights violations in China, including persecution of religious minorities there. Wolf, however, is retiring after this year, and his successor may be more willing to consider enhancing Sino-American space cooperation.

While that may take time, China does not appear to be in any rush. Although American officials warned in the mid-to-late 2000s that China could land humans on the Moon before 2020, China has shown no interest—or ability—to rush its human spaceflight program. Chinese officials said a few years ago they planned to instead have a permanent space station in place by 2020, but now say it will be in place by 2022 or 2023.

Indeed, China’s human spaceflight program is in a bit of a lull, at least from an operational standpoint. After conducting two crewed missions to the Tiangong-1 module in June 2012 and June 2013, China is instead focusing on development of the Tiangong-2 module, slated for launch in 2016. (Tiangong-1, launched three years ago, remains in orbit, but there appear to be no plans to launch additional crewed missions to it.) The first Tianzhou mission is also planned for 2016, along with the next crewed mission, Shenzhou-11.

By the time the Chinese space station is in place in the early 2020s, both the technical and geopolitical environments of spaceflight may have changed considerably from where they are today. The United States and other Western nations may be more interested in cooperating with China as the International Space Station enters its final planned years of operation. Or, they may be moving on to bigger and better—or, at least, different—things, leaving China to seek other international partners for its space efforts.