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From Tianhe To Artemis: Developments To Become The Next Space Superpower

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

By: By: Mike (Shangwei) Wu (Guest Author from Onero Institute)

The following article was part of our Youth Exposition on US-China Space Policy. More information on the event can be found here.

"Second generation Feitian EVA space suit" by Shu Jianyang is licensed under public domain rules.


China's government space agency, the National Space Administration (CNSA) is the facilitator of almost all of China's space program since its foundation in 1964. There have been minor unmanned orbiter missions conducted via private space corporations since 2016, but most of them remained miniscule and lacked fundings and official support.

In recent years, CNSA has enjoyed relatively successful developments recently as it achieved multiple breakthroughs in manned missions, space expeditions, low orbit infrastructures, and satellite developments. China's most ambitious navigation project, the "Beidou" system, which consists of 55 navigational satellites dispersed across multiple orbital levels, aimed to provide users with global navigation coverage to a precision level of ten centimeters, was completed in December of 2020. CNSA also took initiatives in space network coverage as it launched its “Zhongxing”, “Tiantong”, “Yatai”, “Tianlian” satellite series, each of which consists of telephone service, television network, and internet streaming, offering coverage to the entire Asia-Pacific with dataflow bandwidth up to as much as 50Gb/S. By 2025, China expects CNSA to fully establish a national PNT and TRDSS network and earth/ocean surveillance system which features interorbit coordination across different satellite platforms. Maturation of a system like this would mean that CNSA will be able to detect, transmit, and analyze military and civil incidents across the globe within the window of minutes and distribute such analysis towards strategic allies both within and outside of the region.

In manned space programs, CNSA was able to successfully conduct two Space station experiments with its “Tiangong” 1 and 2 since 2012. In April 2021, CNSA launched the “Tianhe” core module, the first section of its first ever non-experimental space station in its newest launch site in Wenchang, Hainan and later sent its second scientific module “Wentian” to dock with Tianhe in July of 2022. The third module “Mengtian” is now expected to launch during October, thus completing the first episode of China’s space station. However, the station’s projected completion was delayed by almost two years as earlier structural failures of the CZ-5 heavy carrier rocket forced scientists to rework the entire engine unit. During this period, CNSA launched another 3 “Shenzhou” spaceship missions to the space station where taikonauts performed onsite experiments, exterior installations, and facilitated dockings of different station module/cargo space ships. Looking ahead, CNSA is developing a new generation of spaceships that are capable of conducting interstellar manned missions to the Moon and even Mars. With the help of CZ-5 rockets, CNSA completed the “Chang’e 5” sample collection mission to the Moon and “Tianwen '' landing missions to Mars, helping CNSA’s familiarize with future interstellar missions. By 2035, CNSA expects themselves to establish an international Moon station, complete sample collections from Mars and asteroids within the Solar System, as well as beginning a Jupiter orbit mission.

United States

In the United States, privatization of space programs and joint operations between NASA and private contractors are considerably more vibrant. Not only do they thrive in civil/scientific operations, their collaboration in the security sector has been heavily emphasized by decision makers throughout the Department of Defense (DOD) and Space Force.

In June, 2020, collaboration with private sectors in space technologies were included in the DOD’s “Defense Space strategy” as the Trump administration recognized strategic disadvantages between the United States and China in space policies and pace of development. Cooperation between the defense and private sector drew even closer as the Spacecom Commercial Integration Strategy was announced in April, 2022. In this strategy, Spacecom introduced the concept of a private satellite based “real-time” perceptive system able to address, control, and command security threats on the ground and in space with aims to achieve complete “integration and unification” under a shared platform. The DOD and Spacecom have already begun exploring concepts of this strategy via their collaboration with the SpaceX led Starlink program. Starlink is an internet constellation system originally aimed for civil internet and telephone service, yet has been reimagined by the DOD as an adequate replacement for outdated military satellites, as it provides higher bandwidth, lower costs, wider coverage, and stronger anti-interference ability. Throughout various experiments from 2019-2022, Starlink has been proven effective in providing military-grade communication/coordination services towards units on ground and in air. It was even used by the Ukrainian army amid Russia’s invasion in 2022 to partially replace the damaged communication system.

NASA has also been outsourcing developments to private sector contractors via its commercial resupply service and crew programs since 2008. The resupply service consists of two contracts with a combined value of 3.5 billion dollars to both SpaceX and Orbital Science that has led to 31 launches and deliveries in less than 8 years. The crew program’s contract was awarded to Boeing and SpaceX with SpaceX’s Crew-Demo2/1 mission successfully transporting two and four astronauts to the ISS and back, bringing the US back into manned space programs and breaking its previous reliance on the Russian-owned Soyuz program. In 2017, NASA had finally reintroduced Artemis, its first self-propelled manned moon mission, across multiple agencies and private companies in 21 countries. The Artemis program consists of SLS heavy carrier rockets and the new generation Orion human spacecraft with the final aim of sending astronauts back to the Moon on an annual basis. The program’s first stage, Artemis I, will be an unmanned experiment mission that sends the Orion spacecraft to orbit the Moon, and is expected to launch on September 27th, 2022 at the Kennedy Space center. However, the potential of an incoming storm could delay the mission to as late as early October.


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