HELSINKI — China’s human spaceflight agency is seeking to foster a commercial, low-cost transportation system to deliver cargo to and from its Tiangong space station.

The China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) announced May 16 that it is seeking to reduce the cost and enhance the flexibility of sending supplies to Tiangong through exploring the development of commercial space models. 

The program echoes NASA’s own Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program, which awarded contracts in late 2008 to Orbital Sciences Corp. and SpaceX, and saw the first cargo flights to the International Space Station in 2012. 

That program played a role in the development of the SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon cargo spacecraft, as well as the Antares and the Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares launcher and Cygnus spacecraft. 

Requirements stated in the CMSEO call include being capable of sending not less than 1,800 kilograms to low Earth orbit, with a pressurized volume of at least seven cubic meters. 

The spacecraft should be capable of remaining docked in orbit for at least three months, while offering a price of no more than 120 million yuan (US$17.2 million) per 1,000 kilograms delivered. The spacecraft also needs to be capable of controlled reentry and be able to dispose of more than 2,000 kilograms of waste on reentry.

Proposals include plans for the launch segment and applications will need to be submitted by a deadline of July 15. The call for proposals is open to entities established at least three years prior, with requisite personnel and facilities.

China completed the basic structure of its three-module Tiangong space station in late 2022. China currently uses 14-ton Tianzhou spacecraft launched by Long March 7 rockets to resupply its space station. One Tianzhou is expected to launch every eight months to keep the outpost stocked with supplies for crew, science equipment and experiments, and propellant for maintaining Tiangong’s orbit.

Such a move to foster synergies and innovation from China’s nascent commercial space sector could provide impetus to and advantages for the country’s wider space ambitions.

Tomas Hrozensky, a senior research fellow at the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI), told SpaceNews via email that the CMSEO proposal is a clear indication that China is seeking to replicate the approach which yielded NASA a major success.

“Arguably in the U.S. case, the increasing adoption of market-inspired practices by public actors in the past couple of decades, in particular the clear shift to purchasing services instead of contracting the private sector to develop solutions based on more traditional cost-plus contracts, has grown in breadth and depth, indicating positive outcomes for the public sector,” Hrozensky wrote.

“By more actively embracing commercial participation, China appears to confirm the increasingly recognized benefits of such an approach in stimulating technological innovation in their space industry, and through this also enhancing their space capabilities at large.”

Hrozensky also noted that commercial entities bring fresh perspectives, flexibility, and a relentless drive for efficiency that can lead to unexpected and rapid advance, citing the innovation boom witnessed in the U.S. following NASA’s CRS program.

The paradigm shift toward a commercial and competitive space environment in the Chinese context is also very interesting as it may also be hinting at some limitations of the state-run space programme, Hrozensky added.

CMSA made an earlier, similar call for in January 2021, with the stated aim of building a “flexible, efficient, diverse, and low-cost cargo transportation system.” Main requirements for cargo delivery include a payload capacity of 1-4 tons, possibility for removing and deorbiting station waste to prevent space debris, and transportation costs to be inline with international levels. Those earlier requirements have now been further constrained.

The call notably signaled that China was open to commercial space station projects. Firms such as AZSpace have since emerged stating plans to develop reusable cargo capabilities, while commercial launch companies from then on stated Tiangong to be a potential source of contracts.

AZSpace aims to launch its B300 reusable cargo spacecraft in June, according to a recent statement. The spacecraft will be capable of carrying 300 kilograms of payload to orbit and back. While well below the criteria for the new call, the spacecraft could demonstrate that such capabilities can be developed in the commercial sector to meet the requirements of the scheme.

China aims to keep its space station permanently occupied for at least a decade. CMSEO is also looking at expanding Tiangong with a multi-functional module, and looking at opening it to various commercial purposes including tourism.

NASA meanwhile recently proposed extending existing contracts to transport cargo to and from the ISS through the anticipated end of the station in 2030.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...