In an effort to galvanize NASA’s return to the forefront, then-US Vice President Mike Pence sought to re-create the 1960s Cold War space race, when the United States beat the Soviet Union to the lunar surface, The Washington Post reported.
But this time the role of rival was played not by the Soviet Union, but by China, which Pence warned was trying “to seize the lunar strategic high ground.”
Bill Nelson, President Biden’s new NASA administrator, has carried on that hawkish rhetoric, casting China as “a very aggressive competitor” that has big ambitions in space and is challenging America’s leadership.
“Watch the Chinese,” he recently warned.
Watch them, indeed.
They have now announced one of the most ambitious space projects in human history — a plan to build a kilometer-level starship at least be 10 times the length of the International Space Station (ISS) — news that will likely reverberate with NASA and the Pentagon, The Global Times reported.
Experts say that a number of major technical and management hurdles stand in the way, but the in-orbit assembly of an extra-large spacecraft could have broad applications, such as the building of a space power plant that will generate electricity for the planet.
China is studying the project as part of its 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) period, which is expected to become a major strategic vehicle for its future use of space resources, deep-space explorations and long-term human stays in outer space.
As soon as the news came out, it lit up the Chinese internet, especially among space sci-fi fans. Some thrilled netizens jokingly compared it to the “starships” in movies and TV series, such as Deep Space Nine.
However, space experts say that there will be a great deal of challenges that must be overcome, apart from the huge demand for manpower and resources, considering the tremendous size and complexity of the spacecraft.
“Take the ISS as an example. Due to thrust limitations of launching vehicles, it also adopted the approach to assemble the parts in-orbit, which were delivered in separate spaceflights over a number of years,” Pang Zhihao, a Beijing-based space expert and researcher from the China Academy of Space Technology, told the Global Times.
“It took the ISS 12 years — from 1998 to 2010 — to finally complete the construction. And by the time of completion, the first module that was launched more than a decade prior had almost reached its lifespan.
“It can be speculated that the kilometer-level spacecraft will take even longer to build, and will have much higher requirements for the lifespan of its core components, and the ability to replace components flexibly,” he added.
Researchers will be tasked to minimize the weight of the modules and the number of launches to reduce construction costs, Pang said.
They also must ensure the controllability of the overall structure, so that attitude drifts, deformation and vibration can be limited during in-orbit assembly.
The complexity not only rests on technical issues, but also the overall planning and management of the project, he added, and it must also consider the threats of space debris.
But while the difficulties to construct such a spacecraft are great, experts say it has massive scientific and military potential.
For example, it could be used for building a space power plant, enabling a large-scale all-weather power generation by transferring solar power to electricity and beaming it down to Earth.
China has also made breakthroughs in developing its new super-heavy-lift carrier rocket, rolling out the country’s first 9.5-meter-diameter rocket tank bottom and liquid booster engine earlier this month.
The launch vehicle may point to the Long March 9 carrier rocket, which will be used for future crewed lunar missions, deep space exploration and space infrastructure, Wang Ya’nan, editor-in-chief of Aerospace Knowledge magazine, told the Global Times.
China launched the core of its space station in April, and sent three astronauts up in June.
But although the space station probably won’t be complete until late 2022, there is already a long queue of experiments from across the world waiting to go up, Nature.com reported.
Scientists say that the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) has tentatively approved more than 1,000 experiments, several of which have already been launched.
Before April, the International Space Station (ISS) was the only space laboratory in orbit, and many researchers say Tiangong (or “heavenly palace”) is a welcome addition for astronomical and Earth observation, and for studying how microgravity and cosmic radiation affect phenomena such as bacterial growth and fluid mixing.
However, others argue that crewed space stations are costly, and serve more of a political than a scientific purpose.
“Increased scientific access to space is of scientific benefit globally, no matter who builds and operates platforms,” says Julie Robinson, chief scientist for human exploration and operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC.
“We need more space stations, because one space station is definitely not enough,” adds Agnieszka Pollo, an astrophysicist at the National Centre for Nuclear Research in Warsaw who is part of a team sending an experiment to study Y-ray bursts.
Meanwhile, don’t look for any international cooperation any time soon.
NASA has been barred by law since 2011 from partnering with China — no Chinese astronaut has ever been aboard the ISS, which has been host to astronauts from nearly 20 nations, Washington Post reported.
There is no prospect of that changing anytime soon in a Washington where China is seen as a fierce competitor in a wide range of technological endeavors, from quantum computers to the rollout of 5G.
That is especially true for space, because the technologies used in space also are used for national defense, said Scott Kennedy, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“These deep concerns about China as a military competitor forestalls cooperation in dual-use technologies, and there are no technologies used in space that aren’t dual-use,” he said.
US and Chinese cooperation in space, he said, would require the kind of detente that the US and Soviet Union achieved during the Cold War.
“But we are very far from that.”