China's Tiangong-2 space lab as viewed from the Shenzhou-11 spaceship. Photo: Xinhua
China's Tiangong-2 space lab as viewed from the Shenzhou-11 spaceship. Photo: Xinhua

In the 2013 sci-fi blockbuster Gravity, a stranded US astronaut whose spaceship was destroyed by debris during a spacewalk would have fallen through a bottomless abyss, had it not been for a Chinese space station Tiangong (‘Heaven Palace’), which ultimately took her back to earth.

In reality, Chinese newspapers are conjecturing with glee that in the  2020s, when the Tiangong is up and running some 350 kilometres above earth in a low orbit, and the International Space Station (ISS) – a multinational aerospace endeavour – is reaching its end of its life and will have to deorbit and break up in the earth’s atmosphere, China may become the only country that maintains a manned station orbiting in space, breaking an historic stigma when China was abruptly kicked out from the ISS program in the 1990s.

Since then China has outlined a three-step plan for its indigenous space program. The nation accomplished its first feat of sending Yang Liwei, its first astronaut, aka taikonaut, into space in October 2003.

A taikonaut is seen inside the Tiangong-2. Photo: Xinhua

China has now groomed a total of 11 taikonauts in six manned space flights in a little over a decade. Its last mission launched in October 2016, in which two taikonauts spent a month orbiting the earth, first on board Shenzhou 11 space shuttle and then inside the Tiangong-2 space laboratory, after a successful docking that was televised live nationwide.

The pair, in spacesuits, also gave a little display while on a “space catwalk”, showing off a robotic arm during an extravehicular activity to examine Tiangong’s external structures.

Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng, left, and Chen Dong salute before the launch of the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft, in Jiuquan, China on October 17, 2016. China Daily/Reuters.

The lead taikonaut in the operation, Jing Haipeng, is now the only Chinese who has gone into space three times.

China has already been trialing its first automated cargo spacecraft, Tianzhou (“Sky Ship”) since April this year, paving the way to servicing and resupplying its future modular space station, which is step two.

Simulation of the docking between Tiangong-2 (right) and Tianzhou automated cargo spacecraft. Photo: Xinhua.

Many in-orbit docking efforts with Tiangong-2 throughout Tianzhou’s months-long space journey has put China in the same league as the US and Russia, both of which surmounted technical hurdles for “space refueling”.

Yet China’s great leap forward in space exploration was hit by a rare setback this July – when one of the major propellers of Long March V, the most powerful heavy-lift rocket with a maximum payload capacity of 25 tons to low earth orbit, stalled some 30 minutes after launch.

The colossal rocket, measuring almost 60 meters in height and five meters in diameter, was earmarked to deliver key modules and supporting capsules for the next-generation Tiangong space station.

But officials are steadfast that China’s timeframe, with the ultimate goal of launching and assembling a full-scale space station of its own in the early 2020s, remains unaffected.

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