Tiangong: China May Gain a Monopoly on Space Stations


Artist’s impression of Tiangong.

China launched Tianhe-1, the first and main module of a permanent orbiting space station called Tiangong (Heavenly Palace 天 宫), on April 29. Two additional science modules (Wentian and Mengtian) will follow in 2022 in a series of missions that will complete the station and allow it to start operations.

While the station is not China’s first – the country has already launched two – the modular design is new. It replicates the International Space Station (ISS), from which China was excluded.

There are many reasons for China to invest in this costly and technologically challenging project. One is to conduct scientific research and make medical, environmental and technological discoveries. But there are also other possible motivations, such as commercial gains and prestige.

That said, Tiangong does not aim to compete with the ISS. The Chinese station will be smaller and similar in design and size to the former Soviet Mir space station, meaning it will have limited capacity for astronauts (three versus six on ISS).

After all, it doesn’t have as much money behind it as the ISS and there are not as many countries involved. If anything can be called the UN in space, it is the ISS, which has as collaborators former cold war enemies (US and Russia) and old friends (Japan, Canada and Europe). Over its two decades and counting of service, the only permanent human outpost in space has hosted about 250 astronauts from 19 different countries, carrying out hundreds of spacewalks and thousands of scientific experiments.

But the ISS is coming to its natural end. It’s scheduled to be decommissioned after 2024 to leave place for the Lunar Gateway, a small outpost that will orbit the Moon. This is an international initiative part of the US-led Artemis Programme that again sees China excluded.

Toward a Chinese monopoly?

Until the gateway is launched, however, Tiangong – which will be placed in lower Earth orbit and have an expected life of 15 years – will probably remain the only functioning space station. Some worry this makes it a security threat, arguing its science modules could be easily converted for military purposes, such as spying on countries. But it doesn’t have to be this way and, if things go as planned, it won’t be.

China may use this opportunity to win back trust and attract international collaboration. This may be particularly important given Nasa’s criticism following the recent Chinese out-of-control rocket that plunged into the Indian Ocean. There are signs the country is trying to be more open, having already declared Tiangong will be open to host non-Chinese crews and science projects. Astronauts from Europe’s space agency, ESA, have in fact begun training with Chinese “taikonauts”, and international projects have been included in the station’s first approved batch of selected experiments.

Tiangong might not remain alone for long either. Supported by NASA, private corporations have started designing their own orbital modules, from Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable habitat B330 to the commercial laboratory and residential infrastructure built by Axiom. Even Blue Origin has shown interest in building a space station. The Russians seem to like the idea, too – they already have plans for a luxury space hotel.

What’s more, the already extended ISS lifespan may be further prolonged, although there are many issues surrounding its end date.

The Lunar Gateway

Tiangong may not be alone for long, however, as the Lunar Gateway will be launched eventually. In its basic conception, the Lunar Gateway will serve as a science laboratory and short-term habitation module. It will then act as a hub, allowing for spacecraft and rovers to resupply during their multiple trips to the Moon. The first launch is planned as early as May 2024 with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, taking the essential modules. It should be operational a few years later.

Lunar Gateway Infographic

The Lunar Gateway. Credit: NASA

Compared to the ISS, the Gateway will be smaller and more nimble. Of the original ISS members, only four (US, Europe, Japan, and Canada) are part of the Gateway.

For now, Russia has not joined, due to the controversies surrounding the Artemis program, which many countries believe is too US-centric.

This is another opportunity for China. It has already started collaborating with other countries on recent space projects. More is coming. In March 2021, it signed an agreement with Russia’s space agency Roscosmos to build a joint Russian-Chinese research facility on the Moon. Having lost its monopoly for manned flights to the ISS due to the successful SpaceX launch in 2020, Russia seems keen to keep its options open for what concerns lunar projects.

Ultimately, space is both challenging and expensive. While it is a way for many countries to show dominance, cooperation has already proved to be more effective than lone endeavours: if anything, the ISS is the best proof that. We know that space exploration can also defuse tensions on the ground, as it did during the cold war.

China’s taking a leading role in the new space race could have a similarly positive effect – especially if the country shows goodwill in helping address a growing security problem in low Earth orbit: how to get rid of space junk.

Written by Steffi Paladini, Reader in Economics & Global Security, Birmingham City University.

Adapted from an article originally published on The Conversation.The Conversation

33 Comments on "Tiangong: China May Gain a Monopoly on Space Stations"

  1. It is clear that China is a modern Nation, with the aspirations to match. A Chinese Uighur friend of mine, when I asked him how long it would be until China ruled the world said “100 years”. That was 20 years ago, I think he may have been too conservative. With the US failure to win hearts and minds abroad, and our disastrous behavior in Iraq and Afghanistan while baiting Iran and North Korea, the world and China have been watching. Many Americans are vehemently against investing in other countries infrastructure, so China has begun to take our place. They are winning on many fronts with dedication, the will and the cash to invest all over the world. We ignore them, arrogantly assuming that we are “The Greatest Nation on Earth” while failing to acknowledge that our place in the world is changing. We have embraced mediocrity in our leaders, believing in “America First” to the detriment of our leadership position in the world. Our ship has sailed, China is becoming ascendant. It is our fault!

  2. China can only go as far as the stolen US technology can take them. Once they hit that point, they have to wait until the US invents the next step. Then they can steal it and repeat the process. Let’s face it, China’s genius is in stealing and copying the genius of others’.

    • Over the last 40 years, the west has transplanted their latest manufacturing and managerial techniques to China, all while chasing profits. They thought Chinese companies would put their head down and continue churning out cheap products forever. Now they are surprised that China has not only co-opted but improved upon these techniques to become a serious competitor to western companies.

  3. US has some hope with people like Lee Findley. US is doomed with people like Narq.

  4. Arrogant Americans think they are still number one. Wake up now.

  5. Jerzy Kaltenberg | May 16, 2021 at 1:39 am | Reply

    …well, we have the diametrically opposed views of “blame america first” and “US can do no wrong” already. Now for some balance: Chinese
    space efforts are largely based on continuation of Russian / soviet technology, something Russia simply cannot afford on its own. Tiangong cannot really compete with the ISS. It’s a copy of Mir, just as the Shenzou is a better copy of the Soyuz. This technology can be developed, and unlike the US and Russia, the chinese aren’t constrained by either budget size (Russia) or accountability/Transparency (US). It’ll be interesting to watch.

  6. Why do countries such as Europe and Russia choose to join the China International Space Station program? Because they are not willing to put all their eggs in the same basket, they all have their own ambitions and desires. The United States insists on excluding China and some countries that oppose its political ideas, creating trade space barriers. This method cannot be permanent. If we continue, we should be open and win-win. This is the prerequisite for world peace!

  7. China do not feed on stolen technologies, it feeds on two things, production moved from the west there, and being thr biggest market in the world. When the industrial production was moved to the east, for short term gain of few, China started grow dramatically. Deregulation on steroids. Production made in modern factory by slaves. China become richer, and started to be an interesting market. More investment followed and China developed even further diversifying its economy.
    Now China is on the path to become the biggest power in the world. A state capitalism regime with no freedom of opinion.
    Had not greed blinded everyone we would have invested in developing the right countries, not just the most unethical and convenient

    • Ha ha ha, very funny. China doesn’t exist without stolen technologies. China is the world’s biggest thief. They will try to steal Taiwan and the semiconductor industry next

  8. Richard Langdon Rowland | May 16, 2021 at 3:40 am | Reply

    I saw the movie gravity five times in 3D.. each time getting closer to where I was only two rows away from the large screen.. I think space will become even more important in the future.. particularly if Elon musk has his vision.. also the movie out of Astra by Brad Pitt.. captured some of the competition and fun.. of Moon exploration and mining..

  9. Technology builds economies and militaries. We knew that when we landed Armstrong on the Moon, then decided that money would be better spent buying votes.

    China remembered what we knew 50 years ago, took advantage of our industrial chieftains who outsourced their manufacturing, and is now ruled by a President who was schooled as an engineer.

    Now, instead of competing we are tearing the country apart by accusing ourselves of being hostile systemically — to get and stay in power.

    Get used to China besting us until we decide to onshore and compete, with the most visible way in Space. OK, maybe “if” rather than “until” — we may decide politics of hatred is our country’s way.

    • You still beleive we land those tin cans on the moon?? Lmbo

      • Obviously a Chinese or Russian troll. Bad grammar plus an extremist stupid opinion designed to get a reaction and damage reasonable discussion on this site. Just ignore JY.

        • Oh I am so sorry Peter picked a pepper. Let me say it again. Do you still believe we landed tin cans on a light/moon? Was that better Peter Piper?

  10. leonard silva | May 16, 2021 at 5:12 am | Reply

    trump has destroyed the republican party and split it in thirds. the american people cannot fight themselves and stay on top, we will lose the leadership role of the world as long as people like trump are still in play. IF WE don`t get our sh*t together we will lose in about 40 years. we will concern ourselves in cornering the market in the managing of finances, and wind up giving the rest, manufactoring, sales, to the rest of the world!

  11. More CGI fakery for the dumbed down masses to actually think there are satellites spinning 17,000 miles per hours around a spinning water ball. Lmbo

  12. Like any need a Crewed Space Station that does not rotate and torture people on long mission. I am so disgusted from this “Emerican ultranationalisto headline. Robot can do the work, beside our species is fighting extinction due our stupidity on Earth.

  13. Richard Nunziata | May 16, 2021 at 12:22 pm | Reply

    Does the author of this article know what the word monopoly means.

  14. The ISS led by the US excludes China and Chinese. NASA is forbidden to even talk to any Chinese. And yet, this article associates “China” with “Monopoly”.

  15. Lee, China has invented a new kind of colonialism. This is where they offer to build and finance infrastructure projects with the promise of many thousands of jobs and then bring in their own people, provide shoddy work and then take over collateral (usually in the form of shipping ports or airports) when the unpayable terms are in arrears. The world is on to China, the only good communists is a d–d one

  16. When the Soviets leave the space station, The US should use a portion of it for the Operations Base of The Space Force and share absolutely nothing with any other country about what they are doing.

  17. As Russian-american I am very thankful for Me. Rogozin’s decision to end work on ISS.
    It’s easier for US to fake “Moon Landing” than continue to operate mostly Russian built ISS, (So US spent most of the money) and now again ISS.
    We need ROS!!! Russia needs ROS!!! The World needs ROS!!!.

  18. Politics is a cancer to democracy as is communism. The difference of the two is the former is self-imposed while the latter is being imposed on…

  19. I’m just here to read the 20th century racist White male chauvinist microaggressions against the 21st century aspirations of China as a space-faring nation, and how China owes *them* for current progress in space exploration.

  20. western folks call china the thieve…
    You westerner living on STOLEN LAND…you call country.

  21. … old Europe used Chinese technology to move from dark ages, then that provided jumping point for USA, now circle might go back, what is wrong with that, it is the way things work… that is in short, there was India, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Hittites, Turks, etc…
    … and nobody payed to old Chinese and old Europeans their intellectual rights fee…

  22. I find it inexplicable that China, one of only three countries that has launched people into space, was excluded from the Internatipnal Space Station program. Does anyone seriously believe the technology on the ISS is critical either militarily or commercially?

  23. US number one. We Chinese just steal everything from US.Keep telling yourselves like that.

  24. As long as we keep associating ourselves with ” US-China-russian ” these are all ways of labeling and will only keep our human race down. Grow up!

  25. We live in a world of divided opinions. We have to learn from history and not be defined by it. I am Chinese, I have no doubt that our know-how in the early days needed a starting point, call it learning/stealing/borrowing whatever. In reality we (China) are now leading innovators in various technological sectors in 5G, AI, Robotics etc. There is a lesson here, irrespective of the labels placed by opinions. Set aside West vs East/Good vs Evil for a moment, history has taught us countless times that you have to take your opportunities. The ones whos does will come out on top.

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