by Morris Jones for SpaceDaily
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Jun 29, 2012
The success of the first crewed expedition to China's first space laboratory represents a major step forward for China's space program. China has made steady advances in spaceflight since its first astronaut was launched in 2003, but its space program has often been downplayed by international observers.
It was easy to point out the gap of several decades between China's first astronaut launch and those of Russia and the USA. Gaps of years between successive human space missions further added to the perception that China was moving almost too slowly to notice.
The launch of the Tiangong 1 module and its successful operations with astronauts from the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft is more than just another steady step forward. It represents a substantial increase in China's space capabilities, which are growing far more quickly than even some aerospace analysts are prepared to admit.
Prior sending astronauts to Tiangong, China released few details on the capabilities of this module, dubbed a "space laboratory" by the Chinese. Analysis of video footage and information of crew activities released by the Chinese has surprised us.
As this writer has previously reported, Tiangong 1 is far more than a simple laboratory. It is really China's first space station. It's small and not very capable, but China has already reached this major level of development in its space program.
Another crew will be launched to Tiangong 1 next year. Later this decade, China will launch the Tiangong 2 "space laboratory", which will feature more advanced life-support systems than its predecessor. Afterwards, we will see Tiangong 3, expected to be even more sophisticated. This third "laboratory" is expected to feature multiple docking ports and could support the arrival of cargo-carrying spacecraft, in addition to crew vehicles like Shenzhou.
Thus, China will have a small modular space complex operating within a decade! The final stage in this development will be the launch of a large, modular space station that will probably be occupied on a semi-permanent basis. This will feature three cylindrical segments of comparable size to those used to construct the International Space Station.
The Chinese space station will not approach the size or complexity of the ISS, but it will be entirely built, launched and controlled by China. Despite the heavy investment made by the USA, no single nation really dominates operations on board the International Space Station.
China is still behind the USA and Russia in many aspects of spaceflight. It lacks America's high technology and experience. But it can still operate a robust and ambitious space program without matching this engineering finesse. Astronauts flew to the Moon with computers that had less power than most telephones today. China's expertise in electronics and engineering outstrips anything NASA could use in the 1960s.
Most space technology has been gradually improved over half a century of spaceflight, but the basic designs of rockets and spacecraft have remained highly consistent for decades. China is also taking advantage of "leapfrogging", by using the world's existing knowledge of spaceflight to its advantage. Its first astronaut-carrying spacecraft was not a simple orbital capsule but a large, sophisticated vehicle.
China is also developing a new near-equatorial launch site on Hainan Island to support its new fleet of modular, heavy-lift launch vehicles. The first launch is expected in 2014.
In addition to human spaceflight, China has already sent two spacecraft to orbit the Moon, and has sent its latest Moon probe on an extended mission into deep space. It plans to land rovers on the Moon and retrieve samples. Robot missions to Mars and other targets in the solar system are also proposed.
China claims to have spent around $6 billion on its human spaceflight program. Analysts have learned to be wary of any official spending figures from China, especially with regard to its military budget.
There is probably a fair amount of latitude in this claim, when the cost of labour and services from state-run enterprises features so prominently in these calculations. But one broad conclusion remains undeniable. China is running an advanced space program on a very modest budget.
If its claims are believable, the human spaceflight program is operating on a similar amount to the funding America has wasted on aborted (and sometimes abortive) space projects in the same timeframe.
That's another reason to take notice. China's economy is expected to outstrip America's in the near future. If it elects to spend more money on spaceflight, it will achieve far more than NASA can for the same level of investment. NASA is regularly flailed for its lack of fiscal discipline. China is certainly beating the USA on this front!
The Chinese have also developed a clear and coherent strategy for their space program in the years ahead. They made a plan, and they are sticking to their plan. Right now, nobody really knows what America's long-term future in spaceflight will be. There is no clear agenda.
China is also investing in talent, grooming hundreds of young engineers to steer its program in the long- term. In America, decades of a nasty boom-then-bust cycle in spaceflight have caused talent to be lost, and deterred others from considering careers in aerospace.
China is also building an autonomous and sustainable space program. It controls its own rockets, satellites, crewed spacecraft and space laboratories. Although China forges and gains from international partnerships, it avoids over-dependence on other countries for critical services.
Consider the situation in America: The largest investor in the International Space Station cannot launch astronauts there, and it is not clear when it will recover the ability to do this.
China's space program is not only moving fast. It is accelerating. The Chinese probably understood that the Tiangong 1 module would surprise outsiders with its capabilities, which could explain why they downplayed its true nature for so long.
If such basic details are concealed until the last minute, we may reasonably speculate that other plans and potential advances are also being kept quiet to outsiders. More ambitious plans than simply constructing an advanced space station are probably brewing for the long term.
Capability gaps between China's program and those of other major spacefaring nations are closing more rapidly than we expected. The world should take notice.
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.
China National Space Administration
The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
China News from SinoDaily.com
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