China’s space station veiled in secrecy


Steve Weinz writes in The Week, July 29, 2014, that months after its scheduled re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, China’s first space station, Tiangong (“heavenly palace”), boosted into a higher orbit and is still speeding around Earth, doing … what, exactly?

No one outside of China’s popular but opaque space program seems to know.

Tiangong first blasted off atop a Long March 2F booster in 2011.

During spaceflights Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10, three-person Chinese crews lived aboard Tiangong‘s small habitat for as long as 15 days at a stretch.

Chinese astronauts in space stationChinese astronauts inside space station Tiangong (l to r) Zhang Xiaoguang, Wang Yaping, and Nie Haisheng

All Chinese astronauts are members of the armed forces. Two-time astronaut Nie Haisheng received his promotion to general just prior to a Tiangong flight last year. The Chinese military provides much of the infrastructure and training for the civil manned space program. This is nothing unusual, as the histories of the American and Soviet space programs prove.

But China’s space efforts are making other spacefaring nations nervous. Beijing wasn’t invited to the International Space Station partly because Washington worried the Chinese might steal American technology. And like other space powers, China actively seeks military advantage in space.

Like its companion Shenzhou — “heavenly vessel” — spacecraft, Tiangong reflects its Soviet design heritage, its layout resembling Soviet space stations. The bus-sized Tiangong’s “base block” core module is based an old Soviet space-station part. Altogether, astronauts have around 15 cubic meters of pressurized space inside the space staton. Tiangong would make a great orbital target for rendezvous-and-dock tests of China’s forthcoming cargo spacecraft

Or it could be doing other things.

The U.S. has its own mysterious X-37B robot space plane, the purpose of which is unknown.

During the 1960s, the U.S. Air Force spent several years and several billions of dollars pursuing a military space station. Had the government not cancelled the project, so-called Manned Orbiting Laboratories (MOL) and their two-man crews would have shot into orbit aboard beefed-up Titan missiles for month-long surveillance missions. After the 1969 cancellation, the Keyhole series of spy satellites adopted MOL’s eyes-in-the-sky mission and its huge imaging systems. Drone space stations, if you will.

Meanwhile, as their own nation’s moonshot faltered, the Soviet leadership decided to accelerate space-station efforts. Several military stations flew under cover of the civil Salyut program. One mission — Salyut 3, in orbit from June 1974 to January 1975 — successfully hosted one crew and test-drove giant spy scopes and even a space cannon. Like the Americans, the Soviets found greater success adapting these big man-rated modules into unmanned platforms. Between 1987 and 1992, two drone Almaz stations fitted with large side-looking radars gave the USSR a last, clear look from up high.

The Chinese are putting a lot of effort and hardware in space, but only they know what they are doing up there. It’s clear Tiangong is more than a scientific habitat.

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