China has decided to construct its own space station. It has even approached the United Nations declaring this space station open for international collaboration, particularly developing countries.

China Chronicles, space exploration, China, space mission

The Moon before sunset over western China

Source: NASA

This is the thirty first part in the series The China Chronicles.

Read all the articles here.


Ongoing developments suggest that two major space powers Europe and Russia are actively working to collaborate with China for lunar and human space exploration. The first casualty is likely to be the International Space Station (ISS), which has been a beacon for international space cooperation. Ironically, ISS's origins lay in geopolitics from its very inception and geopolitics again appears to be playing a role in the evolving competition in the domain of manned or human space exploration.

China and Europe have been collaborating on a range of space missions and applications including space weather, weather forecasting, global positioning and navigation services, earth observation and so on. Human space exploration is the significant component of this relationship.

Last year, a Chinese astronaut joined future astronauts from Japan, Russia, Spain and the United States in a European Space Agency (ESA) supervised programme where the participants are left sealed in a cave testing their survival skills. This year, two European astronauts have joined 16 Chinese astronauts for sea survival training off China's coast. ESA declared that the intent of these projects is to establish long-term cooperation with China enabling its astronauts to fly to China's space station.

China is making steady progress in its human spaceflight programme initiated in the 1990s with the intent to develop an effective space station by 2022. The decision is linked to the US restricting China's participation in the ISS, a politically complex joint project of 15 countries including the US and Russia. The US objections arose from its desire to prevent inadvertent transfer of sensitive technologies as well as China’s insensitivity towards human rights.

Therefore, China has decided to construct its own space station. It has even approached the United Nations declaring this space station open for international collaboration, particularly developing countries, mimicking the political confluence over the ISS project. Still, it would pale in comparison with the political and technological might of the ISS participating countries.

Ironically, China's luck seems to change for better over this very point. Europe was initially reluctant and had become the last member to support the extension of ISS project to 2024, eight years beyond the original end-of-mission schedule. Moreover, Europe also differs with the direction the US took for the next destination of human space exploration — Mars.

Europe is skeptical of the returns and the high risks involved with such an endeavor. It believes Moon has significant potential for human exploration and colonisation. With that intent, it had unveiled the 'Moon Village' concept. Instead of pursuing pre-selected activities and restricting project participants, this concept establishes a common platform bringing all the interested parties in lunar exploration with a view to share each other’s capabilities for common interests. This is where Europe sees merit in collaborating with China.

China has developed an indigenous lunar exploration programme. It has achieved major technological breakthroughs in terms of navigation and mapping and by 2018, China would emerge the first country to return lunar samples after a gap of more than four decades. It is also planning to land on the far side of the Moon making China the first country to do so. Most importantly, China is making serious advances in heavy lift launch vehicles.

China's ultimate goal is to follow-up the robotic exploration with manned landings in the 2040s. The Chinese space station is a stepping-stone for this ambitious project. This ESA expects to do the same with the ISS. Consequently, it has already become a participant in China's lunar exploration programme by providing mission critical communications and tracking support to Chinese robotic lunar spacecraft.

This duo will be joined by the third major space actor — Russia. Indicating displeasure with the continuation of the ISS project and a preference for its own space station, Russia intends to emerge as a serious global space power helping it restore its past glory. It was the Soviet Union that kick started the space age and has a series of 'space firsts' to its credit including the first satellite, first man and first woman in space. However, the attempts to revive the space industry do not seem to be progressing well with the Proton rocket failing frequently and the new cosmodrome in the Russian Far East mired in corruption troubles.

Although Russia and China have, several space agreements between them, the new agreement due to be signed this October for collaboration between 2018 and 2022 and stresses cooperation in lunar and manned space exploration. Russia has made plans earlier to segregate its module from the ISS and reform it into own space station. It has also made plans for reviving the Cold War era robotic Luna programme for returning lunar samples. However, financial and managerial problems might be forcing Russia to consider collaboration with China. Moreover, Russian and European space agencies have also collaborated for decades and the French company Arianespace currently markets the Europeanised version of Russian rocket Soyuz.

The geopolitical underpinnings of the ISS project is another major factor. Participation in the project was a diplomatic tool to influence Russia, which weakened with the fall of Soviet Union and Moscow sought collaborations with Western countries. Russia had backed out of the cryogenic engine deal with India in return for an assured partnership with the West on the ISS project. China too had to consider changing its behaviour to avoid isolation from this international space undertaking. However, these positions have changed today with Russia and China exerting far more influence in global affairs. Russia sees a ready market in China for its gas or rocket engines easing pressure from Western sanctions.

Europe's concerns emerge from the scale of economic benefits it reaped from the station. The American private space industry is helping itself with variety of economic opportunities ISS offers. The US is expecting its industry to build commercial space stations as well as running a commercial lunar exploration initiative with the possibility of exploiting lunar resources. The ISS could potentially see a private takeover. Meanwhile, NASA aims to settle humans on Mars. Europe is concerned that its contributions to the ISS project is yet to produce such commercial benefits while its future direction of human space exploration Moon mission contrasts with the US Mars mission.

There were also attempts to include China’s involvement in the ISS. Europe and Russia have in fact supported this as a policy. There is also support from the White House as well as National Aeronautics and Space Administration about possible collaboration with China on human space exploration. However, the US Congress has been reluctant to remove the legal restrictions it placed during the 1990s over the transfer of launch vehicle technology helping China refine its missile designs. China’s heavy-handed approach to handling the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 further undermined its image in the US Congress and remains so.

In this context, Europe and Russia are shifting their attention towards China and its space station as well as lunar exploration. This would allow China to strengthen basic designs of the modules, instruments and vehicles needed for its space station. China-Russia-Europe collaboration on space exploration would have technological, economic and diplomatic implications on the US. This will allow China to further its diplomatic influence in geopolitical areas of interest. In fact, the pole position will be shifting from the US to China.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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