China Looks for Help Building Space Station; NASA is Outsider Looking In

The crew of Shenzhou-10 after 15 days in space. (Credit: CNSA)
The crew of Shenzhou-10 after 15 days in space. (Credit: CNSA)

China is looking for partners on its space station, whose core module is set to launch in 2018:

China is soliciting international participation in its future manned space station in the form of foreign modules that would attach to the three-module core system, visits by foreign crew-transport vehicles for short stays and the involvement of non-Chinese researchers in placing experiments on the complex, the chief designer of China’s manned space program said Oct. 12….

The Chinese orbital station, consisting of a core module and two experiment-carrying modules, can be expanded to a total of six modules if international partners want to invest in their own components, said Zhou Jianping, chief designer of the China Manned Space Program at the China Manned Space Agency.

Addressing the 66th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) here, Zhou said the station will have a nominal crew of three, with a maximum capacity of six, with three-member crews being launched aboard Chinese Long March 2F rockets from the Jiuquan spaceport for missions of up to six months.

China has signed initial space station cooperation agreements with the Russian and European space agencies, and while the European Space Agency has begun training astronauts in Chinese, there is no specific plan yet to send astronauts to the Chinese facility.

Zhou said the space station will be ready for full operations around 2022.

Meanwhile, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said he hoped the ban on NASA cooperating with China in space would be only temporary:

The United States should include China in its human space projects or face being left out of new ventures to send people beyond the International Space Station, NASA chief Charles Bolden said on Monday.

Since 2011, the US space agency has been banned by Congress from collaborating with China, due to human rights issues and national security concerns.

China is not a member of the 15-nation partnership that owns and operates the station, a permanently staffed research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth, but Bolden says working China will be necessary in the future.

During a heads of space agencies panel at the International Astronautical Congress, he said he believed the ban was temporary.

“The reason I think that where we are today is temporary is because of a practical statement that we will find ourselves on the outside looking in, because everybody … who has any hope of a human spaceflight programme … will go to whoever will fly their people,” Bolden said.

  • newpapyrus

    There’s no logical reason for NASA to be interested in participating in a tiny Chinese LEO space station.

    NASA needs to be focused on deploying the next generation of larger and cheaper SLS deployed microgravity and artificial gravity space habitats for cis-lunar space and interplanetary missions.

    NASA really needs to stop continuously spending billions of tax payer dollars on its perpetual journey to LEO.


  • Malatrope

    Our space station (okay, the “International Space Station”, which is 90% our effort) is soon to be discarded because it’s old and nobody wants to pay for it anymore. I have a suggestion: strengthen it a bit, and boost it to orbit Mars instead of suffering an unseemly and undignified death in our atmosphere. It doesn’t even need to be occupied for awhile, but it would make an excellent base from which to prosecute Martian colonization.

    Why throw away perfectly usable hardware?

  • Smokey_the_Bear

    I agree with you, But a LEO based research station will always be a good thing to have to test new experiments & technologies. The future of space stations is with Bigelow, anyone who disagrees…is wrong.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    If the office of the president wants to use NASA as a means of conducting foreign policy … guess what? This could happen. Live by the office of the president, die by the office of the president.

    Space advocates should be looking at interest groups who know how to get the US Congress to accept that interest groups agenda as US interests. It would be most educational to look at interest groups who can get the US Congress to adapt agendas that seem counter to US interests. It’s obvious the US Congress still holds a lot of ability to enforce it’s policy at least in parallel with the office of the president. The community should stop wasting it’s time with the presidency that agenda changes every 4 to 8 years, the obvious long term power lies with the US Congress.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    What do you have in mind for the ~7 km/sec velocity budget to accelerate it to Earth escape velocity, do a heliocentric transfer from Earth’s solar orbit to Mars’ solar orbit, match velocities with Mars, then brake into orbit about Mars? I would prefer a nice 100+ MW fission reactor running something like a VASMIR drive. That would make the propellant load … not totally outrageous. Good luck getting the NRC to sign up with the plan. I’d go to the US Navy for help.

  • Aerospike

    The ISS was never intended to be used outside of Earths magnetic field. Boosting it to Mars orbit or even Lunar orbit is just wishful thinking of armchair space geeks like us.

    btw, it won’t get discarded “soon”. It will be around for at least almost a decade (unless something goes wrong) and I really hope that in this time frame at least one (if not multiple) private stations become operational.

  • Kam Chuanhui

    What the Chinese are proposing is essentially the Mir space station, all over again. For them, it’s something new and they have much to learn from it. For Russia and the US, zero gains as far as operations is concerned, probably incremental scientific gains with a continued presence. I think Russian or US participation would be dictated by politics rather than rationale reasons.

    Assuming the Chinese station is up by the mid 2020s, it will coincide with a final decision on ISS’s long term future. At that point in time, everything will hinge on what long-term presence alternatives are available (e.g Bigelow, Lagrange point stations, Moon). I doubt the US can accept the Chinese having a station up there while there isn’t one for America (“international”, of course)

  • Hug Doug

    Impractical. The ISS is not designed for any part of what you propose. A fast boost out of Earth orbit would rip it to pieces, a slow boost would cause it to linger in the Earth’s radiation belts and all electronics on board would be destroyed. Additionally, the ISS spends a bit less than half of its orbit in the shadow of the Earth, and it radiates away lots of heat during this time. It is not designed for constant exposure to sunlight, it would overheat.

    It would be faster, cheaper, and easier to design a space station specifically for that journey.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    I don’t think Bigelow can close the business case on their space station. If they ever launch, it will be dependent on funding from space agencies with much better uses for their limited funding. Just look at how much NASA and Russia pay for logistics flights each year. Where does Bigelow find that much money ?

  • Malatrope

    I know all that. I just don’t like throwing anything away 😉

  • Aegis Maelstrom

    “Our space station (okay, the “International Space Station”, which is 90% our effort)”

    Oh, great to see a Russian here! Priviet!

    Because if you are not a Russian then sorry, no, it is not “a 90% of your effort”. I know it is a USA-centred website but please, there are limits of idiocy and “we are numbah one” mindset.

    You are not. NASA did not have a complete tech for this station, heck, NASA is not even able to operate it at the moment – neither to transfer people, nor the cargo, nor to uplift the station.

  • Malatrope

    I’m old. Ten years is “soon”, darn it.

    Hug Doug mentioned radiation vs. the electronics, and I’ll admit I didn’t think about that. It would be possible to upgrade all of it, but not worth the cost. On the other hand, there are people who don’t even blink about putting five times what their ’65 Ford Mustang cost back into it to spiff it up. At the very least, it would make an interesting study, perhaps as part of the effort to develop a deep space course curriculum, to lay out what it would actually take.

  • Malatrope

    There may be a reason that Heinlein usually put the Navy in ownership of deep space in his novels (besides his frustration at not being able to join it).

  • Malatrope

    It was a tongue-in-cheek joke, which was apparently too subtle for you (a language barrier?). I have almost given up in disgust over how NASA is being administered. My hopes for the future lay in the hands of private entrepreneurs.

  • Aegis Maelstrom

    Oh, then I am really sorry, I did not know you (but you know that we could find some space cadets who would write something similar?). Others seem to not recognize this tongue-in-cheek as well – or maybe it just ended in the first sentence?

    Unfortunately, sarcasm is hard to recognize on text spacecadetry fora. I’ll try to be more careful here!

  • Malatrope

    No worries. It was late at night, so I wasn’t on my peak game.

  • TimR

    Call it my suggestion – If the Chinese station were something more such as one that could be transferred from LEO to GEO or GTO or to Lunar Orbit or even to a Earth-Sun Lagrange point, that would present in interesting platform for human habitation, unique. Otherwise, I agree that the returns from their station will only duplicate what has already been gained and can be found in the openness of western efforts or through a cheap bribe of a Russian official (MIR).

  • Vladislaw

    it was designed for LEO not GEO, not cislunar space, Earth-Sun lagrange points travel though space or survive in Mars orbit. Other than all of that who exactly is going to be traveling to a space station around mars? It just would never last.
    It is old tech .. we have better more capablity and less costly options….

  • Vladislaw

    Just a bad arguement. NASA should be LEO but also in other areas at the same time. Different research for different locations. Plain and simple. It doesn’t have to be an either or and it shouldn’t be reduced to that option.

  • Vladislaw

    I believe he already has. Any 2nd or 3rd tier country will be able to have a space based, full up, space program in LEO. For a cost of 250 million a country can be swimming in the deep end of the pool, just like NASA and being beaming images of their astronauts to their schools and not have to jump through a single NASA hoop to do it.

    Seven countries signed MOU’s for 1/3 of a module, the first six that jump will fill Bigelow’s first station of two BA 330’s/

  • Vladislaw

    NASA demanded a new dragon capsule per flight, Do you believe Bigelow will have a problem with SpaceX using an old dragon to bring up food, water, breathable O2 and clothing?
    if SpaceX manages to reuse a F9 .. do you believe Bigelow will have a problem using an old dragon and a resused F9?
    do you believe that will cost the same as what NASA pays now? 133 million a flight. or more in the neighborhood of 60-70 million?

  • James

    The really bad problem is honestly that it is a crappy station.

    The ISS is like a house built by a dozen squaters with whatever they had handy, Everything is different, old, and hard to keep running. Also VERY power intensive. We need a new station ASAP.

  • Malatrope

    Now there is an honest assessment. I, personally, would prefer our next “station” to be road-mobile. Not that I think it’s feasible, but I like the notion of the guy that’s running around hawking the construction of “the Starship Enterprise” built for local exploration. It would catch the imagination of the general public (at least part of them) and could become a base for local exploration. Put a crew on it, move it around as the political winds allow.

    Silly, I know. Don’t everybody come down on me about how ridiculous it is. I’m an engineer, I’m painfully aware of the economics.

    In other words, let’s move away from the “mission” strategy, and get on towards a “vessel” strategy.

  • Aerospike

    That’s a statement I can fully agree with! This whole thinking in “missions” and “destinations” hinders us to see that what we actually need is “capabilities”.

    We already have the capability to build a space station. We even have a different, possibly better, approach ready to be tested (inflatable stations/Bigelow). What we now need is to take what we learned and assemble some kind of “ship” that can go places, at least in cis-lunar space, but preferably anywhere between Venus and the asteroid belt. Something along the lines of the “Nautilus-X” concept.
    So taking what we have (ISS) or almost have (Bigelow) what do we need? Besides “minor nuances” like more reliable life support, radiation shielding, etc. it is propulsion and the ability to refuel that would enable the first iteration of “starship enterprise”.

    Let those who want to do LEO research (Government or private entities) build/operate “stations” within their budgets and those who want to explore build/operate “ships” within theirs.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    How many countries have a space budget that even comes close to 250 million per year ? Forget about significant funding from NASA or the ESA.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    You need to start calculating how many flights per year are required to support the station. Logistics costs will be over 1 billion per year

  • Solartear

    “NASA demanded a new Dragon capsule per flight” is not true.

    The refurbishment costs of dragon were unknown, so NASA said to charge at the cost of a new Dragon so SpaceX would not be losing money to fulfil contract. SpaceX already reuses some (small) parts and is free to reuse a Dragon when they show it is safe to do so (docs,tests,etc).

  • Vladislaw

    Since they only need one person in the 1/3 of the habitat it would open it up for the country to allow any of their citizens to visit their part of the station, or they could go in with another country and two countries share 1/3 of module bringing yearly lease costs down to 75 million a year.

  • I guess I am wrong then to believe that Mr. Bigelow will have some really debilitating competition using new techniques once the business of reusable cryogenic propulsion and launch vehicles shakes itself out.

  • Paul451

    Who travels on the Spirit of St Louis? And yet people preserve it for history, rather than dump it in the ocean. And that was just an old mail plane.

  • Paul451

    How many countries have a space budget that even comes close to 250 million per year ?

    Ten. Excluding US/Russia/China.

    Seventeen with budgets over $50m, who could team up.

  • Paul451

    Seven countries signed MOU’s for 1/3 of a module

    You keep saying that, but it keeps on not being true. They have three. One with a UK equipment maker, one with Spaceport Florida, and one with the UAE govt.

  • Vladislaw

    In October 2010, Bigelow announced that it has agreements with six sovereign nations to utilize the on-orbit facilities of the commercial space station: United Kingdom, Netherlands, Australia, Singapore, Japan and Sweden.[18]
    18. Bigelow Aerospace Shows Off Bigger, Badder Space Real Estate, Popular Mechanics, 2010-10-28,

    A seventh country signed on in February 2011: the United Arab Emirate of Dubai.[19]
    19. Klotz, Irene (2011-02-04). “Bigelow Floats Plan For Florida Space Coast”. Aviation Week. Retrieved 2011-02-11.

    “For its part, Bigelow, in addition to showing off his modules, revealed for the first time the six “sovereign clients” that have signed memoranda of understanding to utilize his orbital facilities: the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Australia, Singapore, Japan and Sweden.”
    “Bigelow and Space Florida have signed a memorandum of understanding that provides for a broad range of collaborative efforts to develop Florida’s commercial space marketplace. “We’re really pleased to stand behind one of the few champions of commercial space activity,” says Space Florida president and chief executive Frank DiBello.”

  • Paul451

    {sigh} We’ve been over this before.

    Your first link refers to the your second link (Pop.Mech), which refers to a single article on Space.Com, which (as I’ve explained to you more than once) was written following an interview with Robert Bigelow himself, where the Space.Com author appears to have misunderstood or misremembered two comments made by Bigelow: one, that they were pursuing MOUs with other nations, and two, examples of six nations who could benefit from leasing time on a module.

    Note: Robert Bigelow did not say in the interview that the company has any signed MOUs (because, at that point, they hadn’t.) Likewise the report of the interview itself does not make the claim that Bigelow “announced MOUs” with six nations; that claim exists only in the second Space.Com article, and then from the lazy journalists who regurgitated that article without verifying it. The author of the Space.Com article won’t talk about the article and just directs queries to Bigelow’s PR, and I can’t get a response from Bigelow PR.

    (Feel free to try yourself, you might have better luck.)

    Bigelow has actually only ever announced three MOUs. Two mutual promotion agreements with a UK equipment maker (not the UK government) and Spaceport Florida (not the US govt or even with the Florida govt). Note that these are not agreements about the leasing modules, they are just “you mention us to your clients, we’ll mention you to ours.”

    Their third MOU is with the government of the UAE. That is the only MOU Bigelow has signed with a government. I don’t know what the terms are (and I’d love to know), but the UAE has shown an interest in space so hopefully it’s more than just a mutual promotion agreement.

    In addition, Bigelow has the $18m BEAM contract with NASA, and I believe they are involved in the CST-100 development.

    That’s it.

    The claim is just not true.

    There’s no evidence for it from any source except that one article, and the article only referred to a then-recent 2010 interview (in which the claim wasn’t made by Robert Bigelow).

    Every other reference to MOUs with “six (or seven) nations” will ultimately always lead back to that same single Space.Com article. There have been no announcements or press releases from any of the space agencies or ministries of the nations named. Only the UAE. Nor are there any independent reports from third parties (except for my own lame efforts.)

    For example (and the reason I started chasing this up), no-one I’ve been able to talk to at any of Australia’s space-related agencies or funding bodies or the CSIRO, has heard anything about any agreement or MOU with Bigelow.

    I can’t afford a full FOI request (’cause “freedom ain’t free”), so I’ve taken it as far as I can.


    Would be funny if Bigelows first customer was China lol

    Not his favorite country.

    Mr. Bigelow is 70 years old. How is the old boys health ? Maybe congress can delay commercial crew another decades or two.