Written by Roger Handberg.

We are now entering the third wave in space station construction: the first occurring in the 1970s with the Soviet Salyut series of space stations and the American Skylab; the second saw more complex structures with the Soviet/Russian Mir space station and the Space Station Freedom which morphed into the International Space Station (ISS); and finally the Chinese Tiangong-1 and forthcoming Chinese Space Station (CSS). What makes the situation particularly interesting is that the CSS is projected to become operational around 2022 with the first modules put up around 2018. That will coincide with the apparent end of the ISS mission around 2024. Thus, the world will likely be confronted by a situation where the only operating space station will belong to the People’s Republic of China, the new player on the main stage of human spaceflight. What will happen then is only conjecture at this point but creates both opportunities and controversies depending on the evolution of the human spaceflight policy.

The original space stations, the Salyut series and the Skylab, were expressions of the earlier 1960s race to the Moon which ended in 1969 with the first landing. The Soviet Moon landing efforts fell short but they then embarked on a long term program of multiple space stations such as Salyut 1. The Soviets used each as a test bed for the next. Soyuz 1-5 constituted the first generation with Salyut 6 and 7 as the second generation. The program was premised on each Salyut expanding the time a crew could stay on board and more could be accomplished by the crew in terms of observations and experiments. The program moved forward to Salyut 7 the most comprehensive of the series. Each was a building block for the next.

The American space program found itself in a hiatus that lasted until the 1980s with the first shuttle flight. Skylab launched in 1973 was an expedient made possible by left over Apollo program hardware. Three separate crews flew to the space station which left orbit in 1979. For the US space program there was no systematic effort at building progressively more elaborate space stations which allowed one to work out the defects and make decisions as to future designs based on flight experience. Instead the effort focused on obtaining presidential approval for a space station which would provide the space shuttle a place to fly to and also help construct which was the original purpose of the space shuttle. That effort consumed much of the NASA leadership’s energy and focus until it was achieved.

The next generation satellites built was much more ambitious by both the Soviets and the Americans although more accurately the Americans proposed but did not build for a long time. The US space station was approved in 1984 but after 8 redesigns and a new name, Space Station Freedom, by 1992 nothing had been done. The US program floundered until it was recast as the International Space Station; progress proved slow while the design was simplified and the international partner list grew to incorporate Russia, successor the Soviet Union for space related matters. Earlier, the Soviets pursued ever more elaborate space stations culminating in the Mir Space Station which was orbited in 1986, enduring until March 2001 when it was deorbited, see image above.

ISS construction moved slowly as additional partners came on board as the ISS turned into an international project led by the United States. Joining the ISS had symbolic value for some governments such as Brazil which otherwise was not a major space player despite their developmental efforts. However, the United States vetoed China’s entry into the ISS program despite the signs that their space program was accelerating. This US reaction reflected a domestic political controversy beginning in 1998 over whether China had stolen secrets from US space technology companies. So, China was left on the outside of the international program – a fact that did not appreciably slow the development of their program. The ISS essentially reached total operational status by 2011 which was signaled by shutdown of the US space shuttle program and as result dependence on Russia for astronaut access to the ISS. That alliance has come under strain with the dispute over the Ukraine but the relationship continues since the US has no alternative. The US remains tied to Russia until 2016 but more likely 2017 when new US crew launch options are projected come on line.

What has become more interesting is that the ISS partners had earlier rejected a Bush administration decision that the ISS would go out of service in 2016 just as their research faculties are building toward full operations. However, since, the US changed its mind and agreed with the partners to extend the ISS out until 2020 but now the US has proposed to extend the ISS out to 2024 pending a safety analysis of the station. Given the harshness of the space environment, materials deteriorate over time in a constant bath of radiation and meteorite strikes plus extreme fluctuations in temperature as the ISS orbits the Earth.

At the present time, China plans on orbiting the first segment of their second space station in 2018 with lab components arriving in 2020 and 2022 when it would become operational. Thus, the Chinese will become the only game in town unless the commercial sector can produce structures that would create the equivalent of a space hotel or space station. The Bigelow Corporation is in the process of developing such structures with a test facility, the Genesis 1, in orbit presently. NASA has agreed to test a Bigelow habitat at the ISS starting in 2015 for two years. All of this is projected to end in either 2020 or 2024 depending on whether the ISS is extended to the later date. The other ISS partners are completely on board yet so that things can change.

The importance of the Chinese Space Station is fairly simple to state – it will be the first major space project completed without the involvement of the two original space participants. China officially asserts that it is willing to partner with other states with Russia obviously the first possibility given the current political strains between Russia and the US and European states over the Ukraine and other considerations. The US in order to participate will be forced to review and overturn its current ban on official interactions between NASA and the Chinese. This prohibition however does not encompass private space participants who in some circumstances may find participation in the Chinese space station program attractive for reasons related to their growing activities in commercial space and links to China. This is especially important if the US problems with sustaining a major space program continue given the budget uncertainties that are ongoing fueled by strong partisan differences. The US still possesses major space assets in terms of technologies and personnel but the rise of the private sector symbolized by the choosing of Boeing and SpaceX to carry US astronauts to the ISS signals a civil space program in either retreat or hiatus.

There is no American political will to engage in a more proactive space program despite the outcry from the congressional members with NASA Centers in their constituencies. That also means there is no congressional pressure to lift the ban despite the fact that the ban’s sponsor is leaving Congress in January 2015. China is on a roll in terms of public visibility for several reasons: 1. it is the clear leader among new states entering the space realm with a series of successes that bode for the future of their program. 2. Their activities being recent have greater resonance with the public; Apollo and the first cosmonauts are boring history for a younger generation. 3. There is no competition from the two original space participants which further reinforces China’s dynamic image with regards to civil space. India is proceeding forward also but started from farther back and its space program began with a different set of priorities than China. Russia has other items on its agenda and probably will join the Chinese if allowed but their history is more mixed than fraternal regarding space activities dating back to the 1950s. Europe, Canada and Japan have shown no interest is going it alone but are potential partners in a space station program. For China, the key question will be how much they desire partners for whatever reason, international partners sound good in the abstract but the reality is often messy and more costly in the long run. The most recent public expression of Chinese interest in international participants came in Canada at the annual International Aeronautical Congress. The views expressed were more inclusive than earlier including possible CSS support using various cargo spacecraft. Guest astronauts would also be allowed to visit and work on the CSS although its size may limit how many at a particular time.

Space stations are critical next steps for both the exploration and exploitation of outer space – hauling everything to orbit and back with no base camp is unproductive given the cost of launching a payload to orbit. There is no public effort to start considering a successor to the ISS so the Chinese may remain the only show in space for a while. Private sector alternatives are possible but their purposes are more focused on profit generation which reduces the possibilities for conducting significant research in orbit. The irony is that the collapse of the US Constellation program has made the ISS turn more toward becoming a research lab for space based applications and products. China will likewise find that their space station will be symbolically important but will need to generate a broader return than just prestige and visibility. These two can get a space station program started but sustaining it will be more difficult. Scientific research is one obvious path but more difficult than earlier imagined especially with crew on board. Regardless, the CSS will affirm the fact that humans will continue to inhabit outer space with plans for exploration to continue into the indefinite future.

Roger Handberg is a Professor in the Political Science department at University of Central Florida. Image credit: CC by Stuart Rankin/Flickr