The fight for celestial superiority

As criticism of the cancellation of NASA projects circulates and Russia’s Mars moon probe suffers setbacks at its launch, Alexey Underwood assesses China’s ambitions of becoming a contender for cosmic prestige 

China has taken significant first steps towards becoming a pre-eminent cosmic superpower after successfully docking two orbiting space vehicles for the first time, making it only the third country in history to master the technique.

Tiangong-1 and Shenzhou-8, both launched in late September, docked 210 miles above China at 1729 GMT on November 2, under the watchful eyes of the Beijing Aerospace Flight controllers. Tiangong-1, or “Heavenly Palace 1”, is China’s first space laboratory and was placed into orbit by a Long March 2F carrier rocket.

The Shenzhou-8 craft was the active participant in the docking procedure, managing to complete the seal in under 10 minutes. If everything goes to plan, the conjoined vessels will orbit for 12 days before separating and attempting a re-docking. Assuming the venture is successful, manned missions will follow.

Both the Tiangong-1 and Shenzhou-8 modules are unmanned, but that is not to say that there are no living organisms on-board the complex. Situated aboard Shenzhou-8 is the SIMBOX, a highly sophisticated capsule containing an assortment of plant and animal cells.

The SIMBOX is the result of a scientific collaboration between the China Manned Space Engineering Office and the German Aerospace Centre, which aims to investigate the effects of gravity (and the lack thereof) on biological preparations and living cells.

Despite the undeniably good intentions driving the collaborative research project, it is clear that China’s ambitions lie beyond what could be seen as the simple expoure of a handful of cancer cells to zero g.

The formation of the bi-modular space complex is a statement of intent on the part of the Chinese, as they vie for a place amongst the ranks of space-faring powerhouses – namely Russia and the USA. Tiangong-1 is a space laboratory, a prototype of the larger and yet-to-be-completed Tiangong-2 and Tiangong-3 modules – which once complete will form the foundations of a modular space station much like the International Space Station (ISS).

Some sources suggest the ISS stands to be de-orbited in 2016 and fully decommissioned in 2020 – which is approximately when the Tiangong space station is estimated to enter orbit. Placing a modular space station into peerless orbit with the statuesque ISS nowhere in sight would definitely be a step towards making the People’s Republic the ruler of the thermosphere.

The irony of such a situation would undoubtedly not be lost on Beijing, nor indeed Washington – for it was they who vetoed China’s participation in the ISS program. Had America not made such a move, the Chinese might not have been independently building a space station in the first place.

The trouncing of the American space program by the Chinese may indeed be more imminent than it may at first seem. Recent efforts by the Obama administration have definitively neutered the Americans space program, and NASA’s public and financial support is at an all-time low.

The much criticised cancellations of the Constellation project to return man to the Moon and further space shuttle programs, spearheaded by none other than Barack Obama himself, have irreversibly placed the USA on a slippery slope towards becoming a second-rate space-going nation.

Indeed, Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, has publically spoken out against the cancellation of the space shuttle program and told the US Senate Committee on Science, Space, and Technology that NASA is now an embarrassment to the country.

One could argue, perhaps rightly so, that what with the sheer magnitude of the financial crisis being faced by America (and much of the Western world for that matter), there was no choice for the Obama Administration other than to put space exploration on the back burner.

For better or for worse, these economic conditions, coupled with the relatively rude health of the Chinese economy, may have led to the downfall of the USA as a major cosmic superpower.

Overtaking Russia, on the other hand, is somewhat more of a tall order – although merely catching up to it may be possible. Despite initial failure at the launch of their probe to one of Mars’ moons, the Russian Federal Space Agency shows little, if any, signs of letting up in its relentless quest for cosmic knowledge.

Within the upcoming months and years, Russia also intends to add a multitude of scientific exploration programs to their roster of ongoing space missions most importantly, perhaps, the initiation of the GLOSNASS program (a rival to America’s GPS system), the construction of the Angara family of rockets, and the launch of the Venera-D mission (an unmanned research mission to Venus).

It is also important to bear in mind that much of the Chinese aerospace technology is derived from a trickle-down of Russian and even Soviet technology, and China is unlikely to overtake the nation on which it depends so heavily anytime soon.

This is no doubt a fact that the Chinese government will be keen to sweep under the carpet for the time being, lest it tarnishes their somewhat ostentatious international appraisal of the nation’s most recent achievement with Tiangong-1.

The Xinhua network, a state media outlet, hails the space mission as a “quest for perfection” and reports that the docking procedure was “near perfect”. What it fails to mention is that the docking technology utilised, although indeed Chinese-built, is still based on a Russian design similar to that used in the Mir space station (de-orbited in 2001).

With China’s publically declared annual expenditure of £1.5 billion per year on the development of the national space program, it seems unlikely it will overtake the Russians anytime soon in the race for celestial superiority.

However, this figure may well be significantly more and would only follow China’s previous under-declaration of their annual military budget, which international experts have estimated to be higher than the publicised figure.

If this is truly the case, then the real potential of China’s aerospace industry cannot be definitively gauged – and only time will tell whether or not this particular cosmic student can overpower its American and Russian masters.


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