Commercial Rockets


China isn’t taking being banned from the ISS meekly. They’re building their own modular station. They practiced with small orbital laboratories called Tiāngōng (天宫) 1 and 2, which acted as testbeds for the needed technology. The first of those went up in 2011 and the second in 2016, and they deorbited in 2018 and 2019. (#3 was cancelled.) They were inhabited by eight taikonauts (including China’s first women in space) for almost 48 days. In 2017 they launched a cargo craft called Tiānzhōu (天舟), and practiced docking it with Tiangong 2 and transferring fuel. Tianzhou 2 will be used to resupply the new space station.&ensp The Tianzhou is a variant of the original Tiangong design. A Tianzhou full of food and equipment launched just after the first module on a Long March 7, docking with it before the people went up.

The new station started with a core module called Tiānhé (天和, “Joining of Heaven”), which went up on a Long March 5B in 2021. It is 18 meters long and masses about 22 tons. It has a service and propulsion section at the back end, a multiway docking port at the front, small solar panels, a robot arm, and all the necessities inside to support a crew of three. It has docking setups for passenger and cargo craft on the front and bottom ports, and the top port will be used for the EVA airlock. Cargo carriers can also dock at its back end. The ports are compatible with current international standards based on the Russian APAS-95 system, and the arm is based on the Russian Lyappa design used on Mir. The entire thing is part of a design lineage based on the old Russian Salyut series, which makes it a modernized cousin of the Zvezda module at the heart of the ISS’s Russian end.

The side ports will receive two laboratory modules: Wèntiān (问天, “Quest for Heaven”) to port and Mèngtiān (梦天, “Dream of Heaven”) to starboard, also known as Experiment Module I and II. These would be around 14 meters long and 4.2 in diameter, and would be equipped with larger solar panels, and their own reaction control thrusters. Each will have an unpressurized section near the outer end, with Mengtian’s being larger, and accessible with its own airlock. The outside of the station will have dozens of attachment points for any device or experiment that wants exposure to space. (The large diameter of the Long March 5 fairing let them bolt on all kinds of external stuff that would ordinarily have to wait for a spacewalk.) For indoor lab work, they already have a list of 100 experiments queued up.

The interiors will follow the established style, with sectional equipment racks that give a square interior cross section. In fact, the racks will be compatible with those used on the ISS. This should help facilitate cooperation on experiments with any other country that’s interested in collaboration. (In rejecting such cooperation with China, the USA is essentially standing alone.)

When complete the station should mass around 80 to 100 tons. Its intended crew compliment is three people. The habitable space in Tianhe will be about 50 cubic meters, with each laboratory module adding about 30 more. The station as a whole will be called Tiangong for short, like the little test stations were except with no number after it. Gōng (宫) means palace.

One way this station will be more advanced than the ISS is that it will have ion engines for orbital maintenance. This will greatly reduce propellant consumption, at the cost of reducing available electric power when they’re in use.

The Russians have expressed interest in visiting this station. They and the Chinese are cooperating in space on lunar activities, so why not here as well? There are two issues to overcome for this to happen: first, they would have to finally update the Soyuz with modern docking rings, and second, they will need to launch from someplace well south of their usual launch sites at Baikonur and Vostochny, because the Chinese station is orbiting at a lower latitude. This probably means launching from the ESA spaceport in French Guiana, which has launched plenty of uncrewed Soyuzes but no people. This also requires the ESA to be politically accepting of supporting such cooperation, which they might not be if the United States decides to lean on them. 

Finally, I should mention the Xúntiān (巡天, “Heaven Cruiser”) space telescope. This will not be attached to the station but will orbit nearby, able to dock with the station for maintenance. It will be nearly comparable in size and performance to the Hubble scope, with a two meter mirror, but with a much wider field of view. This might go up a couple of years after the station is completed. (Why haven’t we put up several such telescopes by now? We should. At least we are putting up our own wide-field scope soon. It’s made from a recycled spy satellite and is about Hubble’s size. In fact, they might put up two. We should have a dozen.)

If you’re curious about why some Chinese spacecraft use the word shén and others use the word tiān, when both translate as “heaven”, well I can’t clarify things too much, except to say that apparently the latter word is more identified with Taoism, and may carry more of a connotation of “deity” whereas the former carries a connotation of “spirit” or “magic”, though both refer in a more literalist way to the sky. I may be off base there... probably only a native speaker of the language could clarify this. The political intent of using these very traditional words is just to sound poetic and inspirational so as to increase public support — that much I can say. The policy of using traditional poetic names in the space program, analogously to how America used Greco-Roman names during the space race, was started by Deng Xiaoping, replacing the previous rule of using terms evocative of the Communist revolution, and has been followed ever since.

Will the station be commercialized? Will they do like NASA has done, and permit millionaires to visit, or cosmetic companies to use astronauts in ads, for a price? (The going labor rate for purely commercial use of orbiting astronauts is seventeen thousand dollars an hour.) Nobody is saying for sure, but it seems likely.

The most extravagant commercial use of the ISS will come when actor Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman go up to shoot a movie there — a visit for which NASA will charge $10 million or more on top of what they pay SpaceX for the ride up. The Russians, in response, sent up an actress and director of their own in 2021, getting there first, shortly after the new Nauka module was installed. They did a nationwide casting call stunt to select Yulia Peresild for the role, making a TV show of the selection and training process. Klim Shipenko, who previously directed a rather fictionalized version of how the dead Salyut 7 station was restored to service by cosmonauts, went up as her director and film crew. I’m guessing it’ll be quite a while before anything like that happens on the Chinese station.