While the ISS partners debate the future of their facility, China is moving ahead steadily on its plan to build a smaller space station in low Earth orbit by 2020. To that end, crew members on China's next mission to the Tiangong-1 mini-space station will start practicing on-orbit repairs and refueling techniques, according to Wang Zhaoyao, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office.
The mission next year will continue work started with the Shenzhou 9 flight in June, Wang told an IAC audience, adding to China's experience with rendezvous and docking. Under present planning, he said, Shenzhou 10 will be China's only human spaceflight in 2013, and the last to Tiangong-1. After that, the mini-station will remain in orbit as an outpost for experiments operated from the ground. A second version, Tiangong-2, is planned for launch in the 2014-16 time frame.
During that same period, China will test the unmanned cargo vehicle it is developing and complete work on the Long March 7 launch vehicle. Scheduled for its first flight in 2013, that launcher will have a 30,000-lb. lift capability (AW&ST March 12, p. 33).
Taikonauts, as the Chinese space crews now call themselves, will visit Tiangong-2 for longer “mid-term” stays, Wang said, and continue to develop their skills in on-orbit repairs, while the cargo vehicle will be used for additional refueling demonstrations. The work is building toward deployment of the space station by 2020, after which plans call for three-member crews to conduct six-month tours there and, in theory, play host to space travelers from other countries.
“The Chinese space station is open to all,” said Yafeng Hu, a top international affairs official at the China National Space Administration, during a separate session, drawing applause from his IAC audience.