TIANGONG China is developing its first full-fledged space station, called Tiangong (Heavenly Palace). Early tests of China's skills at rendezvous and docking, shown in this artist's illustration, are set to begin in 2011. Image: China Manned Space Engineering Office
The buzz out of Beijing is that China's Tiangong 1 space lab may fly sooner than expected, perhaps soaring into space by this month's end.
That might be the case, according to China space watcher Gregory Kulacki, a senior analyst and China Project manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The Tiangong 1 module ("Heavenly Palace 1" in Chinese) is not China's actual space station—nor will it be a part of the planned Chinese space station, he said.
Rather, the 8-ton experimental prototype is designed as a test bed for the technologies China will need for its future space station program, including docking technology. [Photos: China's First Space Station]
Over the next two years, China is projected to launch three missions to the Tiangong I space lab. The third—and possibly second—mission is expected to carry Chinese astronauts to live and work on the Earth-orbiting facility.
Kulacki has observed that at 8 tons, China's Tiangong 1 is much smaller than the 80-ton U.S. Skylab launched in 1973, or even the 22-ton core module of Russia's Mir Space Station, which launched in 1986. Right now, the International Space Station has grown to tip the scales at 450 tons.
Looking ahead, China currently plans to complete its 70-ton space station in the early 2020s.
"Coincidentally, that is about the time that the ISS is scheduled to be decommissioned. If both those things happen, China's space station will become the de facto new international space station," Kulacki explained in a recent post on UCS's "All Things Nuclear" website.
China's space ambitions
Just what are the ripple effects stemming from China’s push forward in space station construction? Turns out it may be a bit of a Rorschach test.
There are observers that see China's playbook in space, as on the Earth, as a bid to become a world strategic power, not just a regional power.
Indeed, space for China is one piece—a significant piece, but just one—of the puzzle they are assembling, some observers say. Others contend that, when the puzzle is complete, it has China as No. 1 in the world when it comes to space, with no one else in second place.
Yet other analysts put forward that China’s Tiangong 1 is no big deal, a modest increment in space prowess. And there are those that wager China’s foothold in Earth orbit has military meaning. That’s counteracted by specialists who see a new window for U.S.-China space cooperation.
“Some members of Congress may try to use China’s progress in human space flight as an excuse to criticize the Obama administration’s space policy. Some U.S. defense analysts are likely to claim the orbiting space lab has a military purpose,” said UCS’s Kulacki.
But in reality, Kulacki told SPACE.com, Tiangong 1 is just a small step forward along the same path the United States and the Soviet Union crossed decades ago.
"Neither country discovered any practical military advantage from putting people in space. There is no indication China's human space flight program is motivated by the pursuit of military objectives, but even if it is, space professionals in the United States and Russia already know it is a fool’s errand," Kulacki said.
China's steps in space
The launch of Tiangong 1 is another modest step forward in China’s slow-paced but forward-moving human space flight program. [How China's First Space Station Will Work (Infographic)]