Space station prestige

China’s planned space station will be open to researchers from other nations, but a document suggests the Chinese are finding it no easier than Americans to make effective use of it. (credit: China Manned Space Agency)

Last week, the United Nations announced that it was working with China’s human spaceflight program to fly experiments on that country’s space station. Countries, especially developing ones, could submit proposals to fly experiments on the future China Space Station starting some time in the 2020s. “The China Space Station belongs not only to China, but also to the world,” Chinese ambassador Shi Zhongjun said in the UN statement about the agreement.

That announcement came as the United States was looking to disentangle itself from the International Space Station. NASA’s 2019 budget proposal states that the agency plans to end funding of the station in 2025, looking to either hand it over to commercial partners, or else make use of new commercial space stations. It’s far from a done deal—some key senators are opposed to the plan—but the message is that NASA wants to wash its hands of the ISS sooner rather than later.

Some interpreted it as a passing of the baton in spaceflight. By the mid-2020s, China might be the only country with an operating space station, should the ISS end without a replacement, commercial or otherwise. “China is about to beat up America and steal its space station milk money,” one science journalist tweeted.

Ignoring the nonsensical histrionics of that statement, typical of media today, there is an underlying concern: is the United States about to cede leadership in space to China by ending the ISS while China develops its own? I’m not sure that’s the case, because space stations aren’t that prestigious, and maybe not that effective as well.

Much of the commentary appeared focused on the fact that China was now working with the UN to allow countries to fly its experiments on the ISS. The insinuation was that the ISS was not similarly open, which isn’t the case: dozens of nations have flown experiments on the ISS. That includes an experiment by Chinese researchers that flew on the ISS last year, arranged by NanoRacks.

Moreover, the same UN agency that is working with China has previously worked with Japan’s space agency, JAXA, to provide opportunities for developing nations to launch its satellites from the station. The first such satellite, built in Kenya, launched from the station just a few weeks ago. (That UN agency is also working with Sierra Nevada Corporation to fly experiments on standalone Dream Chaser missions in the early 2020s.)

Setting the UN announcement aside, there’s a bigger question: will China gain prestige with its new space station, and will the US lose it when the ISS is retired? It’s fair to say there will be some benefit to China, domestically and maybe internationally, by having its own space station. And, the end of the ISS will mark the end of an era in human spaceflight.

However, human spaceflight doesn’t carry the same degree of influence as it did a half-century ago. At any given time, there are three to six people in orbit at the ISS, but most of the public probably doesn’t know that, and even fewer can name who is there. It’s just not as important as it was when human spaceflight was an arena of competition in the Cold War.

Look at it this way: the United States lost the ability to launch people into orbit with the retirement of the space shuttle nearly seven years ago. (Yes, that long!) It probably won’t be until some time next year before that capability is restored by Boeing or SpaceX. Yet, any loss of prestige by the US on the international stage has very little to do with that loss of ability.

China has that ability but hasn’t used it much. China’s last human spaceflight was in the fall of 2016, three years after its previous flight. Its next one probably won’t be until 2020, after the launch of the core module of its space station. Clearly, it’s not a huge priority to them. It’s tough to have a new Space Race when no one is in much of a hurry.

There probably wouldn’t be much of a debate about the future of the ISS, or challenge finding funding for it in the public or private sectors, if it was a valuable research platform. NASA and scientists would no doubt point to the wide range of research being done there, from biology and materials science to astronomy and Earth science. There’s no question that scientists have found all sorts of uses for the platform.

But it’s not obvious that research can justify NASA’s $3 billion a year it spends on ISS operations, including transportation of astronauts and cargo. That’s about 40 percent of the entire budget of the National Science Foundation, which manages to support groundbreaking science is vast array of disciplines. Is the space station’s scientific value really two-fifths of the entire NSF?

A lot of the research done on the ISS seems to be opportunistic: taking advantage of a facility that is already there and largely being paid for by NASA. You can see that in how the ISS is being used as a platform for Earth science experiments, even though the station’s 51-degree orbit isn’t ideal for most Earth observation activities that require flying in a Sun-synchronous orbit for full global coverage. If you’re a scientist desperate for a ride, though, mounting a sensor on the outside of the ISS is better than nothing, especially if you’re only paying for the cost of the payload, rather than a full-fledged satellite mission, with someone else footing the rest of the bill.

China will run into a similar situation with its space station. The guidebook issued by the Chinese space program about its space station and its capabilities showed a grab bag of research topics it planned to carry out, all very familiar to what’s been done, or proposed to be done, on the ISS. One of the few differences in that document is research in the “application of Chinese traditional medicine to aerospace medicine.” The Chinese, it seems, are struggling as much as the US to find ways to make use of a space station.

That could explain why commercial space stations have been so slow to develop: the demand just isn’t there unless it’s heavily subsidized by a government. Maybe one day space tourism or optical fiber manufacturing or pharmaceuticals will emerge as the long-awaited “killer app” that can commercially support a space station, but that day seems well in the future. (It’s also worth noting that people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, while willing to support the ISS or commercial space stations, have no aspirations to build their own, preferring lunar bases or Mars settlements.)

So if China wants to welcome the world to their own space station, good luck to them. And, good luck to NASA as it figures out how to make the most of the ISS while getting it off its books as soon as it can. Neither effort will have as much influence over spaceflight, or international prestige, as old-time space advocates might think.


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