China marked an historic milestone in its space program when it successfully launched and orbited its Tiagong-1 space module on September 29, 2011. The module, which means “heavenly place” launched aboard a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center located in China’s northwest desert area, otherwise known as the Gobi Desert.
Over the next two years, Tiangong-1 will orbit the Earth and rendezvous with three Shenzhou spacecraft. The first two will reportedly be unmanned and will arrive in November with the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft followed later by the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft at an unspecified time. The two spacecraft will rendezvous, and conduct space dockings at a height of 340 kilometers above Earth’s surface. After the docking tests with Shenzhou-8 and Shenzhou-9, Tiangong-1 will await the arrival of Shenzhou-10, which will be manned and possibly carrying a female astronaut.
Tiangong-1 is an experimental module that will be the corner stone of the technology and procedures for a planned space station to be put in place by 2020. Public statements about Tiangong-1 reaffirm its experimental status, but it unclear whether China has other plans for the module aside from its role to test technology and orbital techniques. The one thing that is clear is that China has a plan Tiangon-1 for its manned space program, but what that plan is and how the module fits into it is not readily apparent.
Conversely, while China’s space program is taking a giant leap forward , the space policy and program of the United States is stumbling and threatening to take a big step back. The retirement of the space shuttle in July and the cancellation of the Constellation program leaves the United States with no means for manned spaceflight nor any definitive goals for such. It has also seen the role of manned spaceflight ceded to the Russian Federation, who ironically was one of the perceived catalysts for originally setting the ambitious goals of the manned space program that led to the United States reaching the moon.
Notably, NASA has invested in private companies such as Space X to provide access to the International Space Station for its astronauts and to resupply it as well; however that has been met with resistance from the current benefactor of NASA’s woes. Beyond that NASA’s plans for manned space flight in low-earth-orbit (LEO) and beyond LEO remain tenuous at best. Last week NASA announced its Space Launch System (SLS) to facilitate manned spaceflight beyond earth orbit. While the SLS is impressive in scope and with a purported “mission” to an asteroid, the program has no definitive mission leaving it vulnerable to cancellation by the current or a future Administration.
It is the lack of definitive goals for the United States space program and a plan to reach those goals that plagues the space program and threatens to waste 50 years of investment in time, money and human lives. As noted by Gene Cernan, the commander of Apollo 17 and the last man to walk on the moon, in his recent written testimony before the Congressional hearing “NASA Spaceflight – Past, Present and Future”,
“[T]oday we are on a path of decay. We are seeing the book closed on five decades of accomplishments as the world’s leading space-faring nation. As unimaginable as it seems, we have now come full circle and ceded our leadership role in space back to the same country, albeit with a different name, that spurred our challenge five decades ago.”
Ironically, the cure for the ills of the United States space program can be found in the manned space program of China. The answer is not a space race with China, but adopting long-term goals and deliberate plans to reach those goals that will put the United States’ manned space program back on track and produce tangible results that will motivate and inspire generations to come.
China sends Heavenly Palace into orbit as nation ambitious for permanent station, Xinhua.
Testimony by Eugene Cernan: “NASA Human Space Flight Past, Present, and Future: Where Do We Go From Here?”