For more than two decades, the International Space Station has orbited 227 nautical miles above Earth with more than 200 astronauts from 19 different countries enjoying stints aboard.
But its role as the sole venue for a continuous human presence in space, scientific research and a testing ground for future space exploration is coming to a close, potentially signaling an end to an unparalleled era of international cooperation in space.
China, whose astronauts have long been excluded from the ISS, successfully launched the first module of its planned space station on Thursday morning from the Wenchang launch site in the southern island of Hainan, according to the China National Space Administration.
The core module, currently the largest spacecraft developed by China, was launched into low earth orbit by a Long March-5B rocket, marking the first step of China’s efforts to build its own station in two years.
Russia has also said that it will leave the ISS project in 2025 and plans to build its own space station that could launch in 2030 – if Russian President Vladimir Putin gives the go-ahead.
China’s space station won’t launch all at once; it will be assembled from several modules launching at different times. Chinese state media reports that the country’s space station will be fully operational by the end of 2022.
The core module has a total length of 16.6 meters (55 feet), a maximum diameter of 4.2 meters and a living space of 50 cubic meters, according to China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).
It’s expected to operate for 10 years – which could be extended to 15. Eleven launches including four crewed missions and four cargo missions are scheduled in the next two years. The first crewed mission is expected to be launched in June of this year – sending three astronauts to orbit for about three months, during which the life support system and maintenance will be tested.
It won’t be as large as the ISS – about one fifth of its size and similar to the Russian Mir space station, which operated from 1986 to 2001, but the intent is that it can be permanently occupied by astronauts on long-term stays.
“We did not intend to compete with the ISS in terms of scale,” Gu Yidong, chief scientist of the China Manned Space program, was quoted by Scientific American as saying.
China launched its first manned space flight in 2003 – more than 40 years after NASA. But as the nation has grown richer and more powerful in recent decades, its space program has accelerated.
China’s space station – the core module is known as Tianhe, which means harmony of the heavens – will allocate space and resources to a number of international microgravity experiments. Six projects have been fully accepted so far including one on the impact of spaceflight on cancer tumors conducted by researchers from Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and France.
“China is interested in demonstrating to the world, and to its own people, that it is a world class player in human spaceflight and cutting edge science,” said David Burbach, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College. Burbach spoke in a personal capacity, not on behalf of the US Navy.
“International cooperation also helps China’s scientific community to learn from peers in other nations. Diplomatically, science cooperation helps portray China as a normal, cooperative world power, and in the case of cooperation with US allies in Europe and elsewhere, likely Beijing appreciates driving a bit of a wedge between those allies and the US.”
There’s been very little cooperation between the US and China in space. In 2011, US Congress passed an act to bar NASA from having any bilateral contact with individuals of the Chinese space program because of national security fears.
What’s next for ISS?
What lies ahead for the aging ISS is unclear.
It was initially envisaged that the ISS would have a 30-year lifespan. NASA has said that the space station is viable beyond 2028 and it could continue to play a key role in preparing for deeper space flight such as missions to Mars. However, it wants to share the $1.1 billion annual cost of operating it more widely with other potential users.
“The hope has been to commercialize the station, but it’s not clear much progress has been made or even what commercialization would mean in practice. ISS is probably not ideally fitted out as a hotel for space tourists, and it’s not clear there’s much business interest in using ISS for zero gravity R&D,” said Burbach.
“In theory lack of a buyer, so to speak, might mean abandoning ISS and de-orbiting it, letting up burn up like the Mir station twenty years ago. I think it will be very difficult politically for the US to abandon a permanent presence in Earth orbit when the Chinese *do* have a station of their own,” he said via email.
Burbach said that the ISS had been much more international that any other space project, with the close involvement of Russia, Japan, Canada and European countries. However, it was unlikely that US-Russian cooperation would be a cornerstone of future projects, he said. Nor did he expect any softening of the US stance toward working with China in space.
“The US is making its return to the Moon program – Artemis – very international, with ESA, Canada, and Japan all contributing major components, and involving new partners too like the UAE,” he said, referring to the European Space Agency.
“The overall theme is one of the US strengthening relations with its friends, not using space to try to build a bridge to rivals,” he said.