JIUQUAN SATELLITE LAUNCH CENTER — Thirty years ago, the Chinese government initiated a secret plan for its space program, including a key goal of building a space station by 2020.
At the time, the country was 11 years from sending its first astronaut into space, and its space efforts were going through a rough patch: Chinese rockets failed in 1991, 1992, 1995 and twice in 1996. The worst failure, in 1996, was a rocket that tipped to the side, flew in the wrong direction and exploded 22 seconds after launch, showering a Chinese village with falling wreckage and flaming fuel that killed or injured at least 63 people.
While grand spaceflight plans of some nations have ended up many years behind schedule, China completed the assembly in orbit of its Tiangong space station in late October, only 22 months later than planned. And on Nov. 29, the Shenzhou 15 mission blasted off from China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center deep in the Gobi Desert and took three astronauts to the space station to begin permanent occupancy of the outpost.
These human spaceflight achievements, combined with recent space probes to the moon and Mars, add to the evidence that China is running a steady space marathon rather than competing in a head-to-head space race with the United States. That China’s space program is making good time toward its long-term goals was reinforced during a rare visit for foreign media to the country’s heavily guarded desert rocket base for the Nov. 29 launch — including lengthy interviews with senior Chinese space officials by The New York Times.
The Pentagon predicted in August that China would surpass American capabilities in space as soon as 2045.
“I think it’s entirely possible they could catch up and surpass us, absolutely,” said Lt. General Nina M. Armagno, the staff director of the United States Space Force, at a conference in Sydney the day before the launch of Shenzhou 15. “The progress they’ve made has been stunning — stunningly fast.”
China’s program left the starting line in 1986, decades after the height of the U.S.-Soviet space race. That was when Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader then, approved Project 863, a science and technology development program that included plans for a crewed spacecraft.
The program began to pick up speed in 1992 with Project 921. “The goal set back then was to complete the construction of the Chinese space station around 2020,” said Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s crewed space program.
Despite initial embarrassment as rockets kept blowing up instead of reaching space, China picked up the pace in the years that followed. American companies, looking for an inexpensive way to put satellites into space, helped China fix its rocket quality problems. In 2003, Boeing ended up agreeing to pay $32 million in fines for violations of American arms exports controls by a company that it had acquired, Hughes Space and Communications.
Congress ended up banning American space agencies in 2011 from spending any money to cooperate in space with China, except in limited circumstances. The ban, enacted in response to worries about technology theft and human rights violations, blocked any chance of inviting China to join the International Space Station.
Frank Wolf, the retired Republican congressman who pushed through the legislation, said in a recent email that he still believed the legislation was needed. “Bottom line, we should not be collaborating with China,” he said.
China has also tapped into Russian expertise extensively over the years, going back to the founding of Jiuquan in 1958 as a military base for the development of China’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles. Spacecraft carrying the Shenzhou missions strongly resemble Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.
The country’s space officials say that every component of their spacecraft is made in China. But they acknowledge having benefited from cooperation over the years with their northern neighbor.
“China’s manned spaceflight has also had a lot of exchanges with Russia in the process of development — 100 percent localization does not mean that there is no exchange or cooperation,” Mr. Zhou said.
China is now pursuing its own programs and has not partnered with Russia for its new space station.
Having already made big strides in space in recent years, a half dozen Chinese space officials outlined their plans for the coming years in interviews at the launch center, which sits in a vast, frozen expanse of gray gravel in northwestern China, almost four hours’ drive from the nearest large town.
The Tiangong space station weighs nearly 100 tons. That is barely more than the American Skylab that launched in 1973, and it is less than the Mir space station that the Soviet Union began assembling in space in 1986.
Tiangong is being portrayed by state media to the Chinese public as a three-bedroom home in the sky. Still, it is a lot smaller than the International Space Station, which is about 450 tons and has sleeping space for seven.
What the Chinese space station may lack in heft, Chinese officials are trying to offset with efficient management of space — a polite phrase for crowding in astronauts and experiments. But space experts in the West have also suggested that the I.S.S. is bigger than it needs to be, particularly given the miniaturization of computers and other scientific equipment since its development began in 1994.
Starting with the arrival of the three Shenzhou 15 astronauts on Nov. 30, China now plans for its space station to be occupied continuously by at least three astronauts. That will expand to six astronauts during their weeklong overlap every six months when a replacement crew arrives — still short of the International Space Station’s usual complement of seven astronauts.
Ji Qiming, assistant director general of the China Manned Space Program’s engineering office, said that the Shenzhou 15 astronauts would first debug equipment aboard the newly completed space station. They will “complete the unlocking, installation and testing for 15 scientific experiment racks and carry out more than 40 space science experiments and technical tests in the field of space science research and applications, space medicine, space technology and so forth,” he said, without providing specifics.
With efficient space management, the Chinese space station will offer four-fifths as many racks for experiments as the International Space Station does, Mr. Zhou said. One of the experiments will be an extremely cold atomic clock.
“This can play a very good role in some basic physics research, such as non-Newtonian gravitation and gravitational redshift” research, he said.
As soon as next year, the space station will also have a separately launched telescope, Xuntian, orbiting nearby to survey the universe at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths — in many ways, a more sophisticated version of NASA’s 32-year-old Hubble Space Telescope.
“The characteristic of the sky survey telescope is that it can do large-scale sky surveys — we plan to complete surveying 42 percent of the sky’s area in 10 years,” Mr. Zhou said. “We expect that it can obtain some very important results, especially that our telescope should be unique in the world in the ultraviolet wavelengths.”
The Shenzhou 15 team are set to conduct three or four spacewalks in the coming months as well, Mr. Ji said. They will also use a new robotic cargo airlock that allows scientific experiments to be put out into the frozen vacuum of space.
“It will reach a very low level of temperature so that we can study some very important phenomena in fundamental physics, such as Bose-Einstein condensate,” Mr. Zhou said, referring to a condensed state of matter only found at temperatures close to absolute zero.
Despite limited direct cooperation, Chinese officials say that they have learned important lessons by watching their American counterparts. Chinese officials are glad, for example, that they did not follow an early decision by NASA in the 1970s: to build a large but costly space plane like the space shuttle.
Instead, they have been impressed by the work of Elon Musk’s rocket company.
“In 2009, when I first learned about SpaceX in a meeting in the U.S., I was surprised: I never heard of this company when I was in the U.S. before, how did it grow into such a large company so quickly,” Mr. Zhou said.
From watching SpaceX, China’s space officials see value in making reusable rockets and spacecraft.
“The space shuttle is very complicated,” Mr. Zhou said, while the capsules China and SpaceX are using are “relatively easier technologically to ensure reliability and safety, and it is also more economical.” He later asserted that, “within a few years, we will be able to achieve the reuse of re-entry capsules for our new generation spaceships.”
Developing reusable rocket technology in China has become even more important following considerable international criticism of its Long March 5B rockets. China allowed massive core boosters from these rockets to fall out of control to Earth while sending each of the three modules of the Tiangong space station into orbit.
R. Nicholas Burns, the United States ambassador to China, said in an interview that he had encouraged China “to be more cautious about the uncontrolled re-entry of large rocket bodies.”
China has bristled at criticism of the Long March 5B’s core boosters. One caused damage during a test flight in 2020 when it fell in West Africa, but none of the rocket stages have hurt or killed anyone so far. At least one more launch of the rocket is planned in 2023, when the Xuntian telescope goes to orbit.
Chinese officials say they don’t just want to avoid uncontrolled re-entry, but to reuse rockets.
“We will take reuse as an important technical goal of our projects — reuse will bring technical challenges, but it will bring better economics and will also enable better development of the aerospace industry,” Mr. Zhou said
Rong Yi, chief designer of the Long March 2F carrier rocket that took the Shenzhou 15 mission into space, said that on Nov. 26, China had tested a prototype for a reusable rocket booster that burned liquid oxygen and kerosene. Even before then, she said, China had been working hard on steering technologies to make sure that a reusable rocket would land in a specific location.
Additionally, He Yu, chief commander of crewed spaceship systems at the China Academy of Space Technology, said that, in May 2020, China had already tested a reusable prototype for a spaceship capsule.
The effort to develop reusable spacecraft is running parallel to Chinese officials’ plans to put astronauts on the moon. They have not announced a precise timetable but have previously hinted that it would not happen later than 2030.
Mr. Ji and Mr. Zhou each said that considerable work had already been done on a crewed lunar lander.
“These works have laid a solid foundation for the manned lunar exploration project,” Mr. Ji said during a news conference at the Jiuquan launch center, before making an allusion to Chinese mythology: “I believe the dream of Chinese people to embrace the moon from the ninth heaven will come true in the near future.”
But sending a person to the moon has been done. Sending a person to Mars is an even bigger prize for China. It has placed an emphasis on shortening the duration of such a trip, perhaps with nuclear propulsion instead of conventional rocket engines. Officials are also determined that any journey will be a round-trip from which all astronauts return alive and in good health.
“Technically, it is feasible in theory, but it has huge challenges in engineering because the scale is very large, we have estimated at least 900 days of travel” based on current technologies, Mr. Zhou said.
With nuclear propulsion, the trip could be trimmed to 500 days, he said, without predicting whether China would adopt that approach.
Huang Weifen, chief designer of China’s astronaut program, said she was looking at ways to make sure that astronauts could stay healthy for a 500-day trip.
“It is another qualitative leap in flying — a very big challenge for people in terms of the medical issues, the psychological issues and living guarantees,” she said.
Despite all these difficulties, China is intent on sticking to its long-term plan for space.
“Landing on the moon, landing on Mars, are very significant progress in the development of human civilization,” Mr. Zhou said. “We may understand and realize its further value step by step. But its role in the development of our human civilization is huge, so it is worth our efforts — it’s worth fighting for.”
Li You contributed research from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.