China’s launch in April of the main module for its newest orbiting space station drew more international attention than expected — for the wrong reasons. After reaching orbit, the main rocket booster tumbled ominously back to Earth in what is called an “uncontrolled re-entry.” The debris landed in the Indian Ocean in May, narrowly missing the Maldives and spurring criticism of how China carries out the launches of its heaviest rocket, the Long March 5B.
More launches like it are coming anyway. The mission was the first of 11 needed to build China’s third, and most ambitious, space station by the end of 2022. Two more Long March 5B rockets will carry additional modules, and other variants will launch smaller parts. Four missions, one planned for June, will return Chinese astronauts to space after more than four years.
China’s first two space stations were short-lived prototypes, but this one is intended to function for a decade or longer. Mr. Xi, the Chinese leader, compared it to the “two bombs, one satellite” exhortation of Mao Zedong’s era, which referred to China’s race to develop a nuclear weapon, mount it on an intercontinental ballistic missile and put a satellite in orbit. Like all of China’s accomplishments in space, it is being touted as evidence of the prowess of the Communist Party-run state.
The International Space Station, jointly developed by the United States, Russia and others, is nearing the end of its intended life in 2024. What happens after that is unclear. NASA has proposed keeping the station going for a few more years; Russia has announced that it intends to withdraw by 2025.
If the station is decommissioned, China’s could be the only game in town for some time.
The station — named, like the first two, Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace” — will be able to house three astronauts for long-term missions and as many as six for shorter periods. China has selected a team of 18 astronauts, some of whom are civilians (only one is a woman). The first three are scheduled to spend three months in space, which would surpass the 33-day record for Chinese astronauts set in 2016.
Hao Chun, the director of China’s Manned Space Agency, told state news media that astronauts from other nations would be allowed to visit, whether aboard Chinese spacecraft or their own, though they would need a docking mechanism “in line with Chinese standards,” which are different from those on the International Space Station. He said some foreign astronauts were already learning Mandarin in preparation.