On the 29th of April this year, the Chinese Manned Space Agency (CMSA) successfully launched the Tianhe core module of their planned Tiangong-3 space station. This is not the first space station that China has launched, following the successful operational lives of Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2. However, Tiangong-3 will be their first third generation modular space station. Third generation space stations, like the ISS, are modular in design and assembled on orbit, as well as being capable of resupply and much longer missions than second generation stations. This is a tremendous step forward for China, a nation which has not been shy of signalling their extra-terrestrial ambitions.
CMSA has already agreed projects and payloads with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), showing their desire for international cooperation. This is set to disrupt the relative monopoly the International Space Station has over all members of the international community, who could not afford a space station of their own on projects in microgravity. The new station will enable China to do just this, effectively ending a decade long ban.
In this new era of worsening Russian relations with the West, the Russians are increasingly leaning towards China as their new partner in space. They have signed an agreement to explore the moon with the Chinese, whilst forgoing the American Artemis program to return to the moon. They have also pulled out of the ISS, with plans to stop supporting ISS modules by 2025. This departure was accompanied by a plan for a new Russian station, but the glory days of the Russian space agency (ROSCOSMOS) are behind them, and the likelihood of this coming to fruition is up for debate. The new station may even be constructed of retrofitted modules originally intended for the ISS, and Russia has a history of decade long delays for station modules. The timing of this move was also very close to the Chinese station launch, and was accompanied by some discussion around the ROSCOSMOS collaborating on the new Chinese station.
Despite this, the new station was launched to a 42° inclination, putting the station out of reach for any Russian launch site, the most equatorial of which is Baikonur Cosmodrome, at 45°N. This means all launches to the station will have to come from Chinese stations, barring American or western cooperation (this may have contributed to the partial walkback on ROSCOSMOS leaving the ISS). This is similar to China’s proposed crewed lunar program, which has planned international cooperation, but has also been suggested should be performed independently. Both of these programs suggest the same approach by China, of international cooperation, but guided by and with permission from China.
This is all a direct challenge to American leadership in space exploration, the US having dominated every aspect of space, from uncrewed interplanetary missions to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) operations ever since the later days of the Apollo program. This may even be the starting pistol for the next space race.
NASA and ROSCOSMOS have seen huge budget reductions from their peaks, with NASA falling from nearly five percent of the American federal budget to just half a percent. Both agencies have also fallen into ruts in their activities, with NASA being trapped in an endless loop of senate mandated redesigns, and ROSCOSMOS stuck flying essentially the same Soyuz vehicles designed in the 1960s. There have been some significant achievements in the remote programs, but crewed space flight has stagnated. Whilst commercial space activity has become much more frequent, with the cost of getting to orbit reducing and the number of launches in a year rising again, national agencies drive the majority of human space exploration, either through funding or direct programs. Since the Apollo program, and the end of the space race, these programs have been massively defunded and deprioritised. China’s space agency has an expanding budget and is relatively insulated from political decisions, giving it the perfect background for ambitious programs. The surge of China in space may even form new motivation which to drive the United States’ increasing divided political elite together to pursue space exploration. The current US administration has already used opposition to China to justify policymaking, one of the few similarities it shares with the previous administration.
Both China’s new station and their lunar program speak to their big ambitions in space. They may even provoke the US into a new space race, for better or for worse. They also both signal how China sees the future of cooperation in space, under Chinese leadership. This is similar to how the ISS has operated in regard to the US and Russia and the other ISS partners, but the US is increasingly not the hegemonic global power. In a world of ever-increasing Chinese dominance, it is clear that the skies are no limit.