Americans preoccupied with the pandemic or national politics may have missed major news on “our” aging International Space Station (ISS) and China’s launch of the first modules of their new space station that will soon take over.
The initial ISS modules were launched in 1998, although it would take several years before it was ready for astronauts and cosmonauts — 2020 marked its 20th year as an inhabited research facility. The first core modules included one built by the U.S. and two built by Russia. Russia already had experience with its pioneer Salyut and Mir space stations in the 1970s and 1980s. An additional 13 chambers were eventually added to the ISS.
In the late 1990s, 15 governments signed the International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement. Astronauts from Japan, Brazil, Canada, the U.K., the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, South Korea, Malaysia and nine other countries have been to the ISS. Maintenance of the ISS is shared between the Russian space agency Roscosmos and NASA. The initial hope was that the ISS would last 15 years, but it has formally been extended to 2024.
However, in these last two weeks, a range of media from BBC to Reuters are reporting that the Russians will likely end their participation in the ISS due to its need for increased maintenance and repairs. BBC quoted Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov saying on state television: “We can’t risk the lives [of our cosmonauts]. The situation that today is connected to the structure and the metal getting old, it can lead to irreversible consequences — to catastrophe. We mustn’t let that happen.”
Russia appears likely to soon end over 20 years of space cooperation and hopes to build its own new station, perhaps a fully automated unit without cosmonauts, in the next decade.
Meanwhile, and again in the last week of April, China launched the first module of its new space station from its Wenchang launch site on the southern island province of Hainan. Similar to the ISS, China’s space station (CSS) will require more flights to add modules until it is inhabitable, probably requiring two more years. When operable, China’s station will be named Tiangong. While there may be a few years overlap between the two, the ever increasing repairs and maintenance for the ISS indicates the CSS will become the new research platform for the next decade.
This first module was launched by a Long March-5B rocket, China’s largest launch rocket with a unique design. In contrast to American straight-rocket designs that launched the Space Shuttle, or the new Space-X rockets, the Chinese rocket has a unique ring of engines. Several Western press releases incorrectly compared it to the Russian design. But the Russian design is quite different, resembling the buttresses of a large tree. Western reporters appear to be unaware that this was the independent design of Qian Xuexin, a brilliant head of our Jet Propulsion Lab who was unjustly deported during the Joe McCarthy commie-scare of the early 1950s.
The other major issue in this looming turnover in space stations shows McCarthyism is still alive today. U.S. legislation prohibits Chinese astronauts on the ISS. That U.S. legislation passed in 2011, the Department of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act Section 1340, prohibits NASA from using funds to collaborate with China in any way.
China is quite willing to have American astronauts join, along with astronauts from other countries, and train in preparation for working on their CSS, but U.S. law forbids this. Indeed, some astronomers and related American and Western researchers have labelled this U.S. law “completely shameful and unethical.”
Meanwhile, other Western countries have joined China, allowing training for the CSS or submitting projects for study. At least six Western projects have been accepted. Researchers include those from Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, France., India, Switzerland and Russia.
But not the United States.