Chinese astronauts, known as taikonauts, and a ground crew are working to finish their country’s first permanent orbiting space station and the world’s second by year’s end, official media outlets say.
That milestone will boost China’s national pride and provide it with new channels for economic development and a possible new tool for military use on the ground, analysts say.
The space program advances China’s goal of being “strong and prosperous” by 2049, said Dexter Roberts, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Asia Security Initiative and author of “The Myth of Chinese Capitalism.” That year marks the 100th anniversary of Communist Party rule in China.
“Developing the economy, becoming wealthier and raising national prestige globally and becoming stronger geopolitically are all very, very clear goals of the party,” he said.
A crew aboard the Shenzhou-14 spacecraft last month kicked off six months of work on the Tiangong space station, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Personnel in space and on the ground will finish building the space station, expanding it from a single-module structure to triple-module national space laboratory, Xinhua said.
The U.S. space agency, NASA, bars China from using the International Space Station on military security grounds, prompting China to embark on its own 10 years ago. China launched its broader space program in the 1960s.
Pride and power projection
China’s space station has been designed to be a “versatile space lab” that can hold 25 “cabinets” for experiments such as comparing the biological growth mechanism in varying at different gravitational levels, Xinhua said.
As conducted at the space station and on other space platforms, research into biology, life systems, medicine and materials is expected “to expand humanity’s understanding of basic science,” the State Council Information Office said in a January outlook for the program.
Other countries have already used China’s satellite services, including the BeiDou satellite navigation system, which was made available two years ago to Pakistan. Those systems can survey the aftermath of disasters and help launch satellites.
Officials in Beijing have not said whether the space station will help the People’s Liberation Army.
Space programs, including BeiDou, have a military and security side, said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington.
“The Chinese will argue that while using (the) BeiDou system, you can navigate the weather, you can forecast the natural disasters, and you can also use the satellites to investigate and explore the terrains,” she said.
“I think that’s one example of how Chinese space technology is having a real impact over countries on Earth,” Yun said. But, she said, “we all know that’s just one narrative.”
The People’s Liberation Army could technically dock military equipment systems in space or use satellites to survey the ground, experts have told VOA. China has the world’s third-strongest armed forces, a source of alarm for the West and smaller Asian countries.
Chinese President Xi Jinping will probably note the space station as an achievement during the national party congress expected before year’s end, Yun said. Experts say Xi is likely to seek appointment at the congress to a third five-year term as party general secretary.
“National prestige and security” are top concerns for Chinese leaders as they finish their space station, said the Roberts, of the Atlantic Council.
The Chinese government is probably pushing the commercial side of its space program because it wants to catch up to the scale of NASA, he said.
Chinese leaders may hope to develop their own aerospace technology through the space station, said Yan Liang, professor and chair of economics at Willamette University in the U.S. state of Oregon. Some of today’s components could be imports, she said.
“Definitely I do think that with the communication aspect that is about big data and all these other high-tech industries, it’s definitely in the interest for China to be able to do that and maybe later to export to other countries,” Liang said.
Tiangong’s first module was christened last year. It operates 340 miles above the Earth’s surface, farther away than the International Space Station.
After a Chinese Shenzhou-14 crew reaches gets to the space station, it will begin research projects and perform spacewalks from the lab module, Xinhua reported.