The Long March 5B rocket carrying the first module of China's low Earth orbit Space Station is launched on April 29. Photo: AFP/ China Manned Space Agency/Eyepress

Is Beijing’s zeal about space superpower status crimping real progress being made on multiple fronts in space?

Several programs are going on simultaneously, spanning the lower reaches of space, the Moon and celestial bodies as far as the Red Planet. 

To the dismay of President Xi Jinping, unspecified technical breakdowns forced a vital launch to be aborted early on Thursday. Nerves were frayed when lights on the display board in ground control in Beijing flashed red.

The mission was meant to catapult life-support components and supplies from a cosmodrome off Hainan Island to the Low Earth Orbit to rendezvous with the core module of China’s future Tiangong space station, which has been standing by about 400 kilometers above sea level since late April. 

State media reported earlier this week that the Long March 7 heavy-lift rocket had been “tanked up” for the unmanned trip.

Its payload included the Tianzhou cargo spaceship, which would deliver two spacewalk suits as well as food and medical stocks for three astronauts to live in Tiangong for three months and possibly longer. The space station could start to stake shape by the end of the year. 

The halt of the launch was meant to avert the repeat of a stumble about a year ago, when an experimental cargo return capsule malfunctioned during re-entry, less than 11 hours after China’s most powerful Long March 5B rocket shot it into space.

Just like the last time, no more details about what caused Thursday’s launch delay have been given. Still, China is charting its course to rival the United States in a new race to construct a space station, build lunar bases, explore Mars and carve out a new space order. 

Xinhua hinted that what happened was merely teething problems and, weather permitting, the Tianzhou would launch in about a week. The official news agency also noted that more launches would help ignite young people’s passion in STEM courses and boost related enrolment in universities and help quench the nation’s thirst for more top-flight engineers, when most of the commanders of the Tiangong project were in their 50s and 60s.  

A reality check of Beijing’s launching spree has also become urgent before the country sets off for more celestial targets.

The four programs ranging from Tiangong, lunar exploration, missions to Mars as well as recruiting and training taikonauts are taking up inordinate amounts of resources, stretching and thinning out manpower at the National Space Administration (NSA). 

It was revealed by China Central Television in a feature about the Tiangong after April’s successful lift-off of its core module that NSA director Zhang Kejian always had to juggle his schedule to coordinate several projects.

He had to decide which one had top funding priority when Beijing’s space aspirations bust budgets.

The state broadcaster reported that Wu Wenrui, the chief designer of the Chang’e lunar probes, was also leading a separate team to hammer out design parameters for Tiangong’s living quarters.

Zhang said during the CCTV interview that China’s space treks could also be hamstrung by an emerging “talent crunch.”

More fresh brains are needed. Other than plans to assemble the Tiangong in orbit, China now operates at least two probes on the lunar surface, including one that is surveying the unchartered territory on the dark side in humans’ first such mission.

Last week, China landed its Mars rover, Zhurong, during the country’s maiden trip to the Red Planet that was also a race against NASA.

It is also hectic at the NSA, with new plans being worked out to draw more recruits, primarily from the military and tertiary institutions, to bolster the ranks of engineers and future taikonauts.

All of this is to give shape to the vision of Xi, who said China would get its wheels off the ground and the sky is the limit.

With many programs progressing simultaneously, Beijing also finds it expedient to tap talent from outside, despite state media’s self-reliance claims.  

In March, the Beijing Daily cited the president of Beihang University, a Beijing-based node of research into rockets, aerospace and related disciplines, as saying that Beihang’s School of General Engineering had wooed expat experts from the United States, Russia and other former Soviet Union nations across eastern Europe to train Chinese engineers who would be recruited by the NSA.

Beihang’s website also noted that it was a member of the US National Academy of Engineering-Grand Challenges Scholars Program that organized exchange schemes. 

In the same month, the state-backed Global Times talked up hope of expanding the China-Russia camaraderie from geopolitics into space, teasing observers with a joint program to design, construct and operate a lunar base inhabited by Chinese and Russian scientists in 2030s. Both countries signed a memorandum on space cooperation in March.  

There have also been more concrete outsourcing deals. Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University (PolyU) has for years been commissioned by the NSA to research and manufacture high-precision and high-endurance camera and imaging systems that have been fitted on to China’s Chang’e lunar probes and its Mars rover. 

While refusing to disclose details about talent exchanges with the NSA, citing confidentiality restrictions, PolyU’s chairman of council Lam Tai-fai said last week that the university’s research teams were “unsung heroes” when Chinese media trumpeted the success of the Mars program.

PolyU’s president Teng Jin-guang revealed that two PolyU research teams had participated in landing site mapping and evaluation and throughout the development of a landing surveillance camera and visualization system for the Mars rover.

PolyU’s scholars involved in the partnership with the NSA were mostly educated in the US and Europe. 

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