Why China Does Not Join the International Space Station and is Proceeding to Make Their Own Space Station

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This posting is an answer to a reader who commented on an article which updated China’s unmanned (2011) and manned space station plans (2013+).

International Space Station is a Bad Investment And Dependent on the US to Keep it Going

NASA’s budget for 2011 shows that direct costs for the International space station are just below $3 billion and increase to over $3 billion and need to include a large part of the Space and Flight Operations budget. So the US portion of the International Space Station costs about $4 billion per year. This does not include the spending by the other countries involved.

The ISS budget supports extension of the lifetime of the ISS likely to 2020 or beyond in concert with our international partners. The goal will be to fully utilize the Station’s R&D capabilities to conduct scientific research, improve our capabilities for operating in space, and demonstrate new technologies developed through NASA’s other programs.

Wikipedia on the ISS- The cost estimates for the ISS range from 35 billion to 160 billion dollars. ESA, the one agency which actually presents potential overall costs, estimates €100 billion for the entire station over 30 years. A precise cost estimate for the ISS is unclear, as it is difficult to determine which costs should be attributed to the ISS programme, or how the Russian contribution should be measured.

NASA had planned to deorbit the ISS in the first quarter of 2016. If the line item for ISS in NASA’s budget ever got cut, then the remaining partners would have to try to come up with the funding and the technical means to keep it in space and get the USA and NASA to sign off on that plan.

China’s space program has about a $2-3 billion per year budget and they can proceed by themselves and own and control their own space station and other space capabilities. The Chinese space station is planned to be smaller than the ISS. If China put $1.5 billion each year for ten years towards the ISS, then how big a piece would it get ? China would have chipped in 10% or less of the total spending and only 30% of what will be spent going foward.

China Goals in Space

The Chinese space program is driven by commercial, political and military goals and not science.

China’s expected space missions in 2010:

* Start a total of eight Compass satellites. The Compass system is a direct competitor to GPS and the European Galileo system, intended for navigation. China could just use the existing GPS. However the Chinese made the same conclusions as the Europeans. They want to be independent from foreign technology.

*In October 2007 China sent Chang’e-1 to the moon. Chang’e-2 is supposed to start in 2010. The second version of this moon orbiter is quite similar to the first. One of the few changes is a better camera which should take pictures with 5m per pixel resolution.

* As noted, the first Chinese space station tiān gōng yī hào, “Heavenly Palace” was supposed to launch in 2010, however it got pushed back to early 2011. According to Chinese media the construction already started, so this should be a minor delay.

* In 2011 we will see the first unmanned Chinese Mars mission, called yínghuǒ Yīhào, which will orbit the red planet for one year and take pictures and other measurements.

China is openly acknowledging that the new Tiangong outpost will involve military space operations and technology development.

The fact it has been given a No. 1 numerical designation indicates that China may build more than one such military space laboratory in the coming years.

China’s plans to land a nuclear powered unmanned lunar rover by 2012-2013 followed by an unmanned sample return mission about 2017.

Senior Chinese space officials have told their state media that China could be on the moon by 2022 at the outside. Other authoritative Chinese space engineers see a moon landing as a next step in the Tiangong program that will launch three Chinese space stations into Earth orbit between 2011 and 2015. In 2008, NASA scientists told the Bush White House that, with the technology currently available to the Chinese space program, Chinese cosmonauts could be on the moon by 2017.

China’s space program also seems to have all the funding and resources it needs, partially due to the fact that seven of China’s nine most senior leaders – the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo – are themselves engineers.

The US space program is mostly political pork that is labelled as a space program. Most of the money goes to facilities on the ground that are in the districts of powerful senators and congressmen. NASA still has valuable programs are still being run and they do return good science. However, a lot more could be done with the current budget and should have been done with the historical budget.

It makes no sense for China to join the International Space Station program. If the US had a robust space program with a clear vision and long term commitment and a recent history of successful execution, then their could be some enticement to have some joint pograms with the US. However, there would be the need for the political benefits to balance off with any compromises on China’s commercial and military goals. Currently none of the components even individually analyzed seems to have more pros than cons for China to join with the US space program.

A 2008 study on how China and the US could cooperate in space


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