China Positions Planned Space Station for Post-ISS Era

Engineer concept for Chinese space station. (Credit: CNSA)

China has provided the most detailed plans yet for its planned multi-module space station, which is scheduled to begin full operations in the early 2020’s. Irene Klotz of Space News reports:

China is positioning itself to provide orbital laboratory space, experiment racks and facilities to scientists worldwide following the completion of the U.S.-led international space station program.

“China Space Station (CSS) will operate in orbit from 2022 to 2032. This period will provide much more opportunities to scientists in China and all of the world after the international space station,” Gu Yidong, president of the China Society of Space Research, said at the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research conference here Nov. 3 – 8.

The station’s core module is slated to launch in 2018, followed by two laboratory modules in 2020 and 2022. The outpost will be located in an orbit ranging from 350 kilometers to 450 kilometers above Earth and inclined 42 degrees relative to the planet’s equator.

Building on more than 50 science investigations that took place aboard China’s Shenzhou spaceships and its prototype Tiangong laboratory over the last 14 years, the primary emphasis of research on CSS will be life and physical sciences, said Gu, who served as the chief designer and commander of China’s manned space program space utilization system.

The International Space Station is scheduled to fly at least through 2020. NASA wants to extend the station’s life through 2028, saying the additional time is required to complete biomedical research needed to safely send humans on extended deep space mission. The station is also hosting an increasing amount of commercial microgravity research.

However, there is reluctance on the part of its international partners to commit to the extended operations. ISS operations are expensive, and partners would like to pursue newer projects. It’s not clear whether NASA will be able to convince the partners to stay on, or be able to attract other countries to invest in the project.

In addition to China, Bigelow Aerospace plans to begin offering private space stations later in this decade. The company is initially targeting sovereign governments, some of whom could decide to invest in new orbital facilities instead of continuing to support ISS operations.

It’s also unclear how a budget constrained NASA would be able to continue to operate the space station while simultaneously pursuing human deep space missions with the Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicle, which are set to fly with astronauts beginning in 2021.

NASA is hoping that the commercial cargo and crew programs it is pursuing will enable it to lower the cost of ISS operations, allowing the space agency to continue station operations while pursuing deep space exploration.

  • Stuart

    Having just listened to Robert Bigelow’s comment about China I think I may have just heard the starters pistol fire… Space Race Two appears to have just begun!

  • therealdmt

    I agree. I think China’s [upcoming] progress is going to start _really_ getting the US’s attention.

    Also, if the ISS is de-orbited in 2020, that’ll be about eight years of full up operations after spending $150 billion dollars (all countries included), not to mention having started funding and designing it back during the Reagan administration! Basically, it will have been a giant, colossal failure. An exercise in over planning and overspending leading to a dead end that the US and it’s partners could hardly wait to abandon and move on to something else as soon as enough time had passed to give plausible cover for doing so

  • therealdmt

    We’d be left with no moon base (too expensive), no Mars mission (too expensive) and a rocket that’s too expensive to fly more than once every few years), and no commercial manned spaceflight industry as we’ll have abandoned the ISS it would have serviced. Meanwhile, if all goes according to plan, China will have an international space station, will have returned to the Moon and we’ll be in clear and present danger of standing there on the sidelines like a bunch of chumps with our hands on our ding dongs.

    I think the threat of Chinese dominance of space starting in the 2020’s, the lack of budgetary resources to do what we want to do the old fashioned way, and the successes and promise of NewSpace will open up Congress’s eyes and force a change in the way we do business. We could be on the verge of opening up a whole new area of the economy, one where America will dominate — or on the verge of becoming like the Vikings (first to land in North America, in Vinland, but never did anything with it, only to become an interesting side note in the greater story of the expansion of civilization).

  • newpapyrus

    I wouldn’t call it a failure. But it was unnecessarily hyper expensive, IMO.

    A much cheaper space station with an even larger volume could have been deployed with just two or three launches if NASA had not been forced to decommission its heavy lift ability back in the early 1970s.


  • newpapyrus

    Right now, we’re looking a lot like Vikings:-)


  • windbourne

    Well, a big part of the reason why it was so expensive is that USA was funding Russia and even ESA to a large degree. There was a large amount of tech transfer from USA and Russia to each other as well as to the other partners.

    So, while it was expensive, it also enables us to work together in the future as a team. And yeah, we SHOULD go as a team to the moon. From USA’s POV, we will make heavy use of private space to accomplish this. Spacex, Blue Origin, Bigelow, etc will play a major role. It is POSSIBLE that our old space will play a major role but they really have to make changes.

    And of course, W destroyed the biggest reason for our being there: The centrifuge. Above all else, we need to know what will happen to life in low Gs.

  • windbourne

    I think that you are too pessimistic.
    Bigelow will have alpha up there by 2016, hopefully, 2015.
    They will then make heavy use of private space which will lower the costs for all.

    Thankfully, O is keeping NASA in the game with private space, but he needs to have more of a backbone to the house republicans and kill off the SLS.

  • delphinus100

    The operative phrase being; ‘…if all goes according to plan…’

    And I’m not even convinced that’s their plan.

  • delphinus100

    Which heavy-lift ability was that? The last Saturn V was manufactured in 1968, before the first Apollo mission. Be also mindful that we didn’t even use up all the Saturns we had. Nor is it clear that ‘a cheaper space station’ would have resulted.

  • therealdmt

    Yeah – that was depressing reading about partners wanting to get out of the space station at 2020, and China getting one up and running right about then. Because then there’s the follow on that if the ISS ends at 2020, there’s no longer a justification for commercial crew. The SLS will of course eventually slip behind schedule (as any development program tends to do), and there we are, largely out of the game — all while having the biggest space budget by far of any country in the world!

    But, back on the optimistic side, we’re paused at the dawn of an exciting commercial revolution. Let’s not blow it, congress!

    Also, as some have noted here in the comments, Bigelow could perhaps replace the ISS (perhaps with lower costs at the same time), so canceling the ISS wouldn’t absolutely require things to be “game over” for commercial crew.

  • therealdmt

    They do seem due for a screw up. Their “slow ‘n steady” strategy though seems to be working flawlessly though so far (not that I wish them bad luck — in fact, the competition could be just what we need to get our butts in gear. It’s just that everyone has setbacks at various places along the line)

  • Lech

    I think it is interesting, that chinese has more ambitious space program for less then 1/10th of what Nasa has:

  • Robert Gishubl

    There were multiple proposals to modify Saturn V for increased capacity, reduced cost and re-usability of the first stage. Follow on derivatives would have been much cheaper because the development work was paid for by Apollo. Skylab was an on the cheap space station using left over Saturn V because all planned Moon landings did not go ahaead. It had a short life as there was in sufficient funding to provide missions to control altitude. Saturn IB was an economical way to get crew to LEO but again was canned. If money hade been spent on optimising existing systems the US could have easily maintained continuous space stations with Saturn V and IB. By now they would probably be fully reusable.

  • Aerospike

    Since Commercial Crew Services have slipped to probably 2017, I highly doubt there will be a Bigelow station in orbit before that time.

  • windbourne

    commercial crew to ISS has slipped due to CONgress. Nothing more.
    SpaceX will have completed everything needed for human rating in 2014. At that point, they just need to send humans into space.

    Why would bigelow’s space station depend on CONgress?

  • B.Selvadurai

    We have the rabbit (USA) then the tortoise (China). But every one has forgotten the snail (India) who even with all the obstructions the USA has put in their way to build more powerful rockets (currently India can put only payloads of just over 1000 Kg to geo-synchronous transfer
    orbit) they are making progress. They do have a test planned for mid December and if all does well we will be hearing more exciting plans coming from them.

  • Aerospike

    No they wont. Their progress on crewed Dragon partly relies on NASA funding. Without it, their schedule slips as well (it already has)

  • windbourne

    Out of $460 million, they have $150 million left for them.
    More importantly, out of the 6 remaining items, 3 of them are actual physical tests of :
    1) parachute drop test, needed anyways for cargo, but relatively cheap to do.
    2) pad abort, which is relatively inexpensive to do.
    3) and MaxQ abort. Fairly pricy on this one, but certainly the last prior to NASA allowing human launch to the ISS.

    Upon completion of this, they are then elgible to not only go to the ISS, but considered safe enough for BA’s Alpha.

    Now, do you really think that with BA’s wanting to get up there NOW, SpaceX wanting to be way ahead of competition (easy for them to do at this time), and NASA wanting to make for multiple human-rated crafts available, that 150 Million is going to get in the way?
    Nope. I would not be surprised to see NASA come up with the money, but even if the house republicans block it, then NASA will no doubt get at least 1/2 of that.
    IOW, SpaceX will have to do an additional 75 million to be able to leap frog the competition by 2-3 years, and to service Alpha for that 2-3 years with humans.

    In addition, I noticed that BA will have NOTHING to do with OSC on cargo supply. That means that not only does SpaceX gain human launches, but on-going cargo as well.
    If Alpha launches in 2015, then for several years, SpaceX will be providing a launch for BA every 1-2 months. That is in addition to providing cargo to the ISS.

    I suspect highly that Musk will see this as a great bet, even if it costs him 150 million (one launch).

  • Aerospike

    I once used to share your optimism, but after following the industry for more than a decade, that optimism is largely gone.

    SpaceX making crewed flights without NASA is not dependent on achieving technical milestones. As far as I know, there isn’t even any regulation in place for commercial flights to orbit (FAA/AST). (maybe I’m wrong?)

    I really doubt that we will see manned flights of American vehicles in or before 2015.

  • windbourne

    I used to work in this industry (MGS), so I truly understand your pessimism.
    However, new space, esp. SpaceX and BA, give me hope for things otherwise.
    Now, SpaceX is just as bad as I am on scheduling, BUT, one thing that I have realized is that Musk wants to be in space before ANY OTHER private space company.
    In addition, BA is now close enough to the end goal that they will have ppl lined up to go on-board, assuming that they can get up there.
    Now, BA would LOVE to have 2 or more companies ready to go. BUT, he is willing to go with a company that has a decent record. While ULA has the better record, I have little doubt that by 2015, SpaceX will have more than 15 launches of the F9.
    At that point, they will be considered decent. And ready.

    I am not worried about FAA. I am sure that O will step in if house republicans attempt to push FAA to fight against SpaceX (which is what it would take).

    Oh, and you can bet on it that SpaceX will NOT fly humans without making all of NASA’s milestones. The reason is that it makes a BIG difference in getting customers lined up to go to BA.

  • windbourne

    I would very much like SLS to slip right now. Then it makes it easy to kill it off once FH hits.

    I will say that it would be great to see BA-330’s added to the ISS backbone. That brings a lot to the party in terms of being able to provide a structure. And unless burned up, it should be strong for decades to come.