China Set to Launch Its Space Lab: Tiangong I

August 10, 2011
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

A mockup of Tiangong I (with a door cut in the side) at an exhibition hall at the China Academy of Space Technology.

Although there has been no official announcement, there are good signs here in Beijing that China plans to launch its experimental space laboratory before the end of August.

The lab, called Tiangong I, is an 8-ton spacecraft with two modules: an experiment module and a resource module. The resource module contains fuel, air, water and other resources and equipment needed to support the space lab and the astronauts who will visit it. The experiment module is where the astronauts will live and work. It will be launched from the Chinese space port in Jiuquan aboard a modified Long March 2F (CZ-2F), the same rocket used to carry Chinese astronauts into space.Tiangong I is not the Chinese space station, nor will it be a part of the Chinese space station (see below).

At 8 tons, Tiangong I is much smaller than the 80-ton U.S. Skylab, which was launched in 1973, or even the 22-ton core module of the Soviet MIR, which was launched in 1986.

China’s space lab will have a short life-span of two years and is designed as a test bed for the technologies China will need to move forward with its space station program. The most important among these is docking technology, which will allow a spacecraft carrying people to and from the station to hook up with it.

During the next two years China will launch 3 missions to the Tiangong I space lab: Shenzhou 8, 9, and 10. Shenzhou 8 will be a non-piloted mission whose primary purpose is to demonstrate that it can dock with the Tiangong I. Shenzhou 10 will be a piloted mission that will carry an as yet unspecified number of Chinese astronauts to Tiangong I, where they will spend an as yet undetermined length of time living and working in the space lab. Shenzhou 9 may or may not carry humans to the experimental space lab, depending on the performance of the docking technology demonstrated during the first mission.

At present China anticipates launching two additional experimental space labs in the Tiangong series before moving on to the construction of a space station. Tiangong 2 and Tiangong 3 are currently scheduled to be launched sometime before 2015. This will complete the second stage of China’s three-stage program.

China’s Space Station

Construction of the much larger Chinese space station—which has not yet been named—is not scheduled to begin until the middle of the decade. It is anticipated to weigh 60 to 70 tons, and will be composed of several large modules that are too heavy to be lifted into space by China’s existing launch vehicles. China’s new heavy-lift launch vehicle, the Long March V, has yet to complete flight-testing. Moreover, the Long March V is expected to be launched from a new Chinese spaceport that is still under construction near the city of Wenchang on the southern island province of Hainan.

In comparison, the first three modules of the International Space Station (ISS) (two Russian and one U.S.) had a mass of 55 tons. Those were launched between 1998 and 2000, when it was first inhabited. Today, ISS has grown to 450 tons.

It’s worth noting that Tiangong I itself is more than a year behind schedule, so the timeline for the space station is anyone’s guess.

China’s plans to construct a space station date back to February 1987 when officials selected the building of a space station as the end goal of China’s human space flight program. At the time the mission planners believed that a space program organized around the operation of a space station in low Earth orbit, which could be used for the long-term conduct of human scientific experiments, would be one of the hallmarks of a twenty-first-century great power. A country with the capability of claiming and holding a long-term place in space would signal international significance and national strength.

However, doubts within China’s scientific community about the value of a human space flight program led to a five-year delay between the approval of the plan and the Chinese government’s decision to fund it. Finally, in September of 1992, the Chinese leadership authorized enough funds for the first stage of the program, whose goal was to be able to send astronauts into space and safely return them to earth. China sent a single astronaut into space aboard the Shenzhou 5 in October of 2003. Shenzhou 6 carried a two-person crew into space in 2005, and three astronauts completed the first phase of the program with China’s first space walk from Shenzhou 7 in the fall of 2008.

Final authorization of the funds for the construction of the space station is rumored to have been approved just a few years ago, after a long and failed Chinese diplomatic effort to negotiate access to the ISS. The U.S. Congress has long opposed cooperation with China in human spaceflight, and blocked efforts to discuss Chinese participation in the ISS. Other ISS partners, including the Europeans, the Canadians and the Russians expressed support for Chinese participation but did not openly challenge U.S. objections.

China currently anticipates being able to complete its space station in the early years of the next decade. Coincidentally, that is about the time that the ISS is scheduled to be decommissioned. If both those things happen, China’s space station will become the de-facto new international space station.

In an article published on August 6 in the overseas edition of the People’s Daily, Lt. General Zhang Jianqi, Chief Commander of the China Manned Space Engineering Launch Facility Systems, told reporters that in his opinion:

The Chinese Space Station is an open engineering platform, and allowing foreign scientists and astronauts to visit the station to conduct scientific experiments in cooperation with China would be an ordinary thing.