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China’s Space Dreams

A Chinese astronaut just celebrated his 50th birthday in space. Will the country soon compete with the US?


Right now, two taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) are orbiting the planet. They will be back in mid-November (knock on wood), concluding yet another step in China’s journey to the stars.

The taikonauts Jing Haipeng (50) and Chen Dong (37), set off into space on the Shenzhou 11 space shuttle on the 17th of October, for a 30 day trip. During this time they are slated to conduct a series of experiments with the Tiangong-2 space station precursor facility, which will help China’s space agency launch the core module of a permanent space station in 2018. Other modules will follow, and the space station will hopefully become operational as of 2022.

This is the third trip for Jing Haipeng, China’s oldest taikonaut– quite a journey for a kid whose family was so poor, all they could afford as a sendoff when he left home was a watermelon. Last week, he celebrated his 50th birthday on the space station.

It’s a much more pleasant story to focus on than the fate of the Tiangong-1 space lab, which is expected to hurtle to earth in pieces sometime in 2017. Fortunately, it’s unlikely the parts are going to hit anything, but nobody can really be sure until the time comes.

The Chinese space program is quite a different creature to the American one. Where the US system is constantly subject to very public wrangling over funding, the Chinese authorities have consistently supported China’s space program. Launches are not as frequent as they were at peak times in the Western space-flight history, but each time there are fairly significant leaps forward. So much so that some corners think they risk becoming mere routine.

But there are some pretty concrete advances coming to the fore. The Shenzhou 11 for example, was launched via Long March 2F rockets, but by years end, China is angling to launch a Long March 5—a rocket powerful enough to get a craft to the moon. In 2017, China hopes to get a sample of moon rocks from the dark side of the moon, which would be a first for any country.

It was perhaps inevitable that this would provoke comparisons to NASA, and anxiety in the US about the state of US space exploration. Indeed, the US House of Representatives recently held a committee hearing on whether the US was losing the space race to China.

But when you look at the specific projects and ways in which each country is approaching the space race, it begins to become clear the projects are racing in different directions, at least, for the time being.

US space-related headlines are occupied with two key things–trips to Mars, and the exploits of Elon Musk’s Space X program. In China, the focus is much more on the periodic space missions which currently aim to set up a space station and go to the moon, with the ultimate goal of becoming a global space player on a par with NASA.

That being said, the authorities are not the only Chinese players with skin in the game, a handful of space-focused startups are also entering the market, with the current focus being on microsatellites. Onespace, for example, a company with some government backing, hopes to be able to launch rockets as of late 2018, and would effectively take satellites into orbit on behalf of private interests, at a price tag of around 100,000 yuan per kilogram (by carrying 500 kilograms worth in one launch). Other companies include Landspace Technology and Shenzhen Yu Long Aerospace Science and Technology, all of which in various ways are experimenting with rocket launches.


Image of the October 16 Shenzhou 11 launch, via CCTV America.

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