IDSA COMMENT

The Significance and Implications of Tiangong I

October 7, 2011

To coincide with its National Day celebrations on October 1, China has been undertaking some activity in outer space to demonstrate its achievements in the last few years. These have included two recent moon missions, a manned space mission and a spacewalk conducted by a Chinese astronaut. This year on September 29, China launched the first module for its space station – Tiangong-1 – a few days ahead of its 62nd National Day celebrations.

The launch of Tiangong-1 or "Heavenly Palace" is a major milestone in the history of China’s space programme. The Tiangong-1 module is the first step in China’s multi-stage programme leading to the building of a space station by the year 2022.

China’s space programme has made praiseworthy progress during the last few years. China has demonstrated its space capabilities at par with Russia and the United States. Except for a manned mission to the moon, it has conducted all other space missions which the US has also engaged in. All these demonstrations of its prowess in ‘space’ are a symbol of its growing global stature.

China’s main space station, which is slated to be in place within a decade, is expected to have a life of ten years. It would have a core module with two laboratory units. Three astronauts could stay in the station for undertaking experiments on microgravity, space radiation biology and astronomy. China also proposes to undertake the testing of a deployable antenna.

The only other space station operational currently is the International Space Station (ISS), a combined endeavour of several states including the US, Russia, Japan, Canada and various members of the European Union (EU). ISS is expected to be wound up in the period 2020 to 2028. For more than a decade since its launch in November 2000, the ISS has had uninterrupted human presence onboard. However, with the US retiring its space shuttle programme, the ISS is heavily dependent on the Russian Soyuz craft for transporting astronauts and scientists. The Russian space programme is also facing some difficulties as evidenced by the recent failure of its robotic vehicle failing to dock with the ISS as well as a few launch failures during the last couple of years. There is thus the possibility that the ISS could remain unoccupied for some time. Under these circumstances, China would be the only nation capable of supporting a human presence in space.

After retiring the Atlantis shuttle which took its last flight to the ISS in July 2011, the US has no vehicle ready to undertake manned space missions. It is therefore possible that in the near future the US could lose its position of leadership in the domain of manned space programme.

China is gearing up to make substantial strides in its space programme in the days to come. In a month from now, it is expected to launch the unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft, which is slated to undertake one of the most challenging tasks - that of docking with the Tiangong-1 module. Subsequently, within a year or two, successive missions, namely the Shenzhou-9 and -10, have also been planned to launch astronauts. These missions would carry three astronauts each and would dock with the Tiagnong-1.

Before establishing the space station, two space laboratories, namely Tiangong-2 and the Tiangong-3, are to be developed and placed in orbit sometime in 2013 and 2015 respectively. The experience gained in launching and operating these modules is expected to help China in the setting up its space station. Astronauts (Taikonauts in Chinese) visiting Tiangong-2 would be able to stay there for about 20 days, and at Tiangong-3 for about 40 days. The proposed Chinese space station would weigh approximately 60 tonnes. In contrast, the ISS weighs 450 tonnes. Yet, China’s achievement is laudable given that it is going it all alone, while the ISS has been developed and maintained by the rich and technologically advanced group of nations.

Some technologies developed during the process of designing the space station could have direct or indirect strategic benefits for China. Firstly, at the domestic level, success in this field would enhance national pride and bolster nationalism. Further, success in the arena of space technology would allow China to attract smaller nations in need of space technologies for developmental purposes. Presently, it is helping Nigeria, Venezuela, Bolivia, Laos, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in developing their space programmes. It is offering both technological as well as financial assistance to these states. The purpose behind engaging states from Africa and Latin America is to gain access to their oil and mineral resources, while there is a strategic angle associated in China’s engagement with South Asian states. With its space station likely to become a reality by 2020, China would have another avenue for undertaking its space diplomacy by offering scientists of other countries the opportunity of living on the station. Pakistan could be one of these beneficiaries. In contrast, India’s human space programme is yet to begin and it is not likely to put a human in space in the next 8 to 10 years. Hence, in all probability, the first South Asian in space in the 21st century would be a Pakistani national.