Exploring the Chinese Space Station Project

By: Patrick J. Kiger & Desiree Bowie  | 
China space station
The three Chinese astronauts — (left to right) Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo — in the country's space station core module, named Tianhe, June 23, 2021. Yue Yuewei/Xinhua via Getty Images

The burgeoning Chinese space station, Tiangong, has become a focal point in the 21st-century space race. This development underscores China's rapid ascent in space exploration, paralleling the historic space-race era when the U.S. and the Soviet Union vied for supremacy.

While Tiangong signifies China's ascendancy, it also signals a new chapter in the space race's evolution. The International Space Station(ISS), a symbol of U.S.-Russian collaboration, faces an uncertain future, potentially transitioning into a commercial venture, as nations reposition themselves for the next frontier of deep-space exploration.


In this article, we'll take a closer look at China's space station, the global space race and the future of the ISS.

China space station
The manned Shenzhou-12 spacecraft launches with three Chinese astronauts onboard at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on June 17, 2021, marking the country's first manned mission in nearly five years.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images


The Rundown on China's Space Station

China began to assemble the T-shaped space station known as Tiangong — which translates to "heavenly palace" — in April 2021. It operates in low-earth orbit at an altitude of about 211 to 280 miles (340 to 450 kilometers) above Earth's surface, and is expected to have an operational life of about 10 to 15 years, according to Chinese news agency Xinhua. It shares a similar orbital height with the International Space Station.

The space station consists of multiple interconnected modules — Tianhe, Wentian and Mengtian — a core module, living quarters and scientific laboratories that were constructed in stages. Completed in late 2022, it has become a symbol of China's growing space capabilities and international influence.


This venture emerged out of necessity as China faced exclusion from the ISS program due to concerns regarding military ties and the 2011 Wolf Amendment that limited NASA's collaboration with China.

What truly sets the Chinese space station apart is its transformative living conditions. Offering astronauts a spacious haven, the station boasts an abundance of usable space, a stark contrast to the cramped quarters of China's earlier space labs.

Bai Linhou, the deputy chief designer of the space station, likened the experience to living in a villa, emphasizing the substantial upgrade in comfort.

While smaller than the International Space Station, one of the largest human-made structures in space, China's Tiangong space station serves as a testament to the country's commitment to long-term space habitation and scientific research. It provides a platform for scientific experiments, Earth observation and international collaboration, showcasing China's determination to play a key role in space exploration.


Is China in a Space Race With the U.S.?

The notion of a new "space race" between the United States and China oversimplifies the complex reality of the current space landscape. While China has made significant advancements in space, framing it as a direct competition with the U.S. misses important nuances.

In terms of capabilities, the U.S. maintains a substantial lead across several key metrics. The U.S. space budget in 2021 was approximately $59.8 billion, while China's budget, although growing, was around $16.18 billion.


As of 2022, the U.S. also boasts a majority of the operational satellites in orbit, with 3,433 of the total 5,465, compared to China's 541. Additionally, the U.S. has more active spaceports, offering more launch options, with seven operational sites and numerous others in development, whereas China has four operational spaceports (with two more in the planning stages).

That said, China continues to expand its space capabilities, so it's possible that they could one day overtake NASA's efforts. In fact, according to the State of the Space Industrial Base report for 2022, the Pentagon says that "China continues to compete toward a strategic goal of displacing the U.S. as the dominant global space power economically, diplomatically and militarily by 2045."

When questioned about whether China sending its first civilian astronaut into orbit this past May puts pressure on NASA, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson told CNN, “We have rejuvenated our lunar space program right around the time when China says that is what they want to do. There are forces operating out [in China] that rival a little bit what we felt back in the space race with the Soviet Union. So that is just the reality. To stand in denial of it would be naïve.”

China space station
Chinese President Xi Jinping greets staff members after holding a conversation at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center with the three astronauts in the space station core module Tianhe, June 23, 2021.
Yan Yan/Xinhua/Getty Images


China Plays Catch Up

In some ways, Tiangong is the latest on China's list of things it needs to do to catch up to the U.S. and Russia, after choosing to wait until the 1990s to make a strategic investment in space exploration and not launching a manned space flight until 2003.

China's space strategy is to achieve milestones that are comparable to the U.S., even if they don't quite match the level of technological sophistication, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics Harvard & Smithsonian and creator of Jonathan's Space Report.


Even accomplishing rough parity hasn't been easy. In order to put Tiangong's modules into space, China needed to develop a new generation of heavy-lift rocket, the Long March 5.

After a prototype suffered a critical failure during a 2017 launch, the launching of Tiangong's core module, originally scheduled for 2018, was pushed back until this year, according to this analysis from the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

"They were years late in getting operational," McDowell says.

But while experts suggest that the Tiangong's main purpose is to establish China as a spacefaring power, the space station has the potential to achieve some scientific and technological advances. If the Chinese put their planned space telescope, which is scheduled for launch in 2024, at the same orbital inclination as Tiangong, that would make it possible for Chinese astronauts to travel to the satellite in some sort of ferry spacecraft and make repairs and upgrades easily.

"Although the fundamental goals of the Chinese station are geopolitical in nature, the association of the station with a Hubble-class-plus space telescope promises a wealth of new scientific discoveries," notes Dale Skran, chief operating officer for the National Space Society, a nongovernment organization that advocates for U.S. space exploration efforts, in an email. "In addition, the ability of the Chinese station's robot arm to 'walk' to any location on the station is an interesting development."


Shenzhou-15: A Historic Mission

In November 2022, China achieved a historic milestone in its space program as three astronauts arrived at the nation's space station, marking the first in-orbit crew rotation in Chinese space history.

This mission, named Shenzhou-15 or "Divine Vessel," saw the astronauts launch atop a Long March-2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre. They embarked on this mission in subfreezing temperatures in the Gobi Desert in northwest China.


Shenzhou-15 was the final mission of a series of 11, including three previous crewed missions, required to assemble the Chinese space station.

The first mission for this ambitious project began in April 2021. After a journey of over six hours, the spacecraft successfully docked with the space station, and the three astronauts were welcomed by the previous Shenzhou crew. This handover period established the station's capability to support six astronauts temporarily, setting another record for China's space program.

Leading the Shenzhou-15 mission was Fei Junlong, a seasoned astronaut from China's first batch of trainees in the late 1990s, who had previously visited space 17 years ago. He was accompanied by Deng Qingming, a 24-year astronaut trainee making his space debut, and Zhang Lu, a former air force pilot experiencing space for the first time.

After inhabiting and working on the T-shaped space station for six months, the astronauts safely returned to Earth in early June 2023. Future missions will involve a new generation of astronauts with scientific backgrounds, expanding beyond the initial group of former air force pilots.

Tianzhou 5 Meets Its Fate

China's Tianzhou 5 cargo spacecraft, launched in November 2022, has successfully completed its mission and met its fiery end. It achieved a world record for the fastest rendezvous and docking with a space station, connecting with China's Tiangong station just over two hours after launch.

This 29,760-pound spacecraft was tasked with delivering supplies for the Shenzhou 15 mission's three astronauts, as well as experiments, materials, and propellant to maintain Tiangong's orbit. After accomplishing its objectives, Tianzhou 5 was undocked from Tiangong and intentionally deorbited over the remote South Pacific. It reentered Earth's atmosphere on Sept. 12, with most of it likely burning up during the high-speed reentry, while some components fell into the ocean.

Tianzhou 5 marked the fourth supply mission to Tiangong. It had previously operated independently for 33 days after separating from the space station in May, before redocking once the Shenzhou 15 mission departed for Earth. China's plan is to launch Tianzhou spacecraft every eight months, ensuring Tiangong remains continuously occupied for at least a decade, solidifying China's presence in space.


What's the Future of the ISS?

In 2030, the International Space Station, a symbol of global cooperation and human achievement, will reach its conclusion. Over the course of more than two decades, the station has functioned as a hub for microgravity research, offering scientists a platform to delve into various areas such as Alzheimer's disease, cancer research, Earth observation from afar and the impact of extended spaceflight on the human body.

At this moment, the International Space Station completes an orbit around Earth approximately every 90 minutes, maintaining an average altitude of roughly 250 miles above the surface and an astonishing velocity of 17,500 miles per hour.


However, the passage of time has led to the accumulation of stress on its primary structure, partly due to temperature fluctuations as the station moves in and out of the sun's view. Last year, NASA reported that the ISS's operations will cease in 2030, after which it will descend into the Pacific Ocean.

But a replacement is in the works. This past August, Airbus and the American space exploration company Voyager Space revealed a collaborative effort to establish Starlab, a commercial alternative designed to replace the ISS by the end of this decade.

This initiative, led by the United States but with a presence in Germany (where several Airbus defense and space facilities are situated) aims to "reliably meet the known demand from global space agencies while opening new opportunities for commercial users," Matthew Kuta, the President of Voyager Space, said in a statement.


Race to the Moon

China space station
Journalists in front of a board displaying photos of astronauts a day before China's first crewed mission to its new space station, at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi desert in northwest China, June 16, 2021. GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

About six decades after the competitive moon race between the Soviet Union and the United States, there is a renewed global interest in the massive satellite as scientists have identified traces of water ice on the lunar south pole. These findings kicked off a new moon race, and India is leading the pack.

The country recently landed a spacecraft on the moon and has already made significant findings on its surface. India's lunar rover has identified several elements in the lunar soil, including sulphur, aluminum, calcium, iron, titanium, manganese, chromium and oxygen. These discoveries provide valuable insights into the lunar environment and composition.


A few days before India's Chandrayaan-3 mission touched down, Russia launched its first moon mission in 47 years, which ended in failure when the Luna-25 spacecraft crashed into the moon. Meanwhile, the United States is in a rush to become the first nation to land astronauts at this site, with a crewed mission scheduled for 2025. China, too, has plans for both crewed and uncrewed missions to the area before the decade's end.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.


Frequently Answered Questions

Do the Chinese have their own space station?
The Chinese have their own space station, which is called the Tiangong.
What's the Future of the International space station?
The ISS's operations will cease in 2030, after which it will descend into the Pacific Ocean.