What’s driving China’s race to build a space station?

by Center for Stategic and International Studies / ChinaPower

The advantages of developing space capabilities are manifold.  Satellites facilitate military and civilian communications. Human spaceflight garners international prestige, while also providing opportunities for cutting-edge research. Experiments conducted in space have resulted in numerous breakthroughs that have been used to address medical, environmental, and technological challenges back on Earth.

China seeks to enhance its capacity for scientific and technological innovation by building a large modular space station. Chinese leaders also hope that research conducted on the Chinese Space Station (CSS) will support their long-term goals for space exploration, including missions to the Moon and Mars. This page offers insight into the development of the CSS, compares China’s space station with those of other countries, and explores how China may use manned space missions to bolster domestic innovation.


More than 60 countries have space programs that engage in activities ranging from the development of dual-use satellites to lunar exploration.  Only three of these states have independently sent humans into space.  The former Soviet Union and the United States achieved human spaceflight in 1961 against the backdrop of the Cold War space race.  Four decades later, China joined this elite group with the 2003 launch of Lt. Col. Yang Liwei into Earth’s orbit on the Shenzhou-5 (“Divine Ship-5”).  Yang orbited the Earth 14 times over a period of 21.5 hours.

China formally launched its manned space program, known as Project 921, in September 1992.  Chief objectives of the multi-phase Project 921 include achieving human spaceflight and developing and operating what Wu Ping, deputy director of China’s Manned Space Agency (CMS), has called a “permanent” manned Chinese space station.

A critical aspect of Project 921 is the development of Tiangong (“Heavenly Vessel”) space laboratories that serve as critical testbeds for gaining the technical know-how for operating the CSS. The 8.5 metric ton (MT) Tiangong-1 launched in September 2011 and enabled Chinese astronauts – or “taikonauts – to practice rendezvous and docking maneuvers and carry out short-term missions in space.  Despite losing communication with the space module in March 2016, Chinese engineers applied lessons learned to improve the design of its successor, the Tiangong-2, which launched in September 2016.

The Tiangong-2 features a greater capacity for scientific experimentation and is therefore considered by Wu Ping a laboratory “in the true sense of the word.”  According to China’s 2016 white paper on space activities, the Tiangong-2 offers a platform for China to master key technologies, such as cargo transport and replenishment, necessary for operating a permanent space station. Due to improvements in living quarters and life-support infrastructure, the module was able to host the two-man Shenzhou-11 crew for 30 days in late 2016.  This marked China’s longest crewed mission to date. A third Tiangong space lab is slated for launch in the coming years and will be capable of supporting three taikonauts for 40-day intervals.

Following from the success of the Tiangong missions, it has been reported that China is now in the process of building the core CSS module.  Wang Zhongyang, a spokesman affiliated with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, revealed in April 2016 that China will launch this module around 2018 and conclude construction of the CSS by 2022.


If successfully completed, the CSS will be roughly one-sixth the mass of the International Space Station (ISS) and half the size of the decommissioned Russian Mir Space Station.  The Chinese station is expected to have a mass between 60 and 70 MT – this number may increase with vessels or additional modules docked – while the ISS has a mass over 420 MT, and Mir had a mass of approximately 130 MT.

The smaller size of the CSS may lend itself to operational efficiency and cost savings, but it comes with significant trade-offs.  Reduced capacity for astronauts, equipment, and research may limit the utility of the station as a laboratory for scientific discovery.  While Chinese engineers have noted that the station could be expanded via international cooperation, the CSS is designed to host three taikonauts for 3 to 6-month intervals (or six-person crews for shorter periods).

Although more recently constructed than either Mir or the ISS, the CSS is expected have a shorter lifespan.  Zhu Zongpeng, chief architect of China’s space lab system, indicated in 2016 that the Chinese space station may stay in orbit for around ten years.  Mir remained operational for 15 years before Russian controllers guided its descent into the South Pacific in 2001, and the ISS, which launched in 1998, will have functioned for 26 years if deorbited as planned in 2024. Read more…


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