Space Stations

China’s Space Station: Moving Towards Utilizing the Orbiting Outpost

By Leonard David
May 9, 2023
Filed under , , ,
China’s Space Station: Moving Towards Utilizing the Orbiting Outpost
On the roll: Tianzhou-6 uncrewed cargo spacecraft atop a Long March-7 Y7 booster is near-ready for launch to the country’s space station.
Image credit: China National Space Administration (CNSA)/China Central Television (CCTV).

China this week is expected to reach a new high point in outfitting its multi-modular space station as it moves from assembly in low Earth orbit to ongoing utilization.

Rocket technicians at the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in China’s southern island province of Hainan are in final readiness mode for the launch of a Tianzhou-6 uncrewed cargo spacecraft atop a Long March-7 Y7 booster, another upgrade in China’s blossoming space station program.

The cargo craft-rocket combination has been rolled out vertically on a mobile launch platform, slowly scooting along on a specially-built track at the site.

The China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) said last weekend that the Tianzhou-6 cargo spacecraft will take off in the near future at an appropriate time. This could happen as early as May 10, according to some reports.

Heavenly Palace

Preparing China’s orbital outpost — the Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”) — has been a fast-paced, step-by-step initiative, kick-started in April 2021, when the Tianhe core module was hurled into low Earth orbit. Subsequently, add-on laboratory segment modules were coupled to the Tianhe module in the following months, with the “Wentian” module added in July 2022, and “Mengtian” in October 2022. These laboratory modules are outfitted with experimental racks of equipment that are tended by onboard crews.

Over that period of time, crew-carrying Shenzhou spacecraft have trekked to Tiangong, installing and checking out key components of the facility. Similarly, Tianzhou supply ships packed with propellant, food, equipment, and other supplies linked up to the modular complex, which itself will likely be expanded in the future by the addition of new modules.

China’s “Heavenly Palace” – a space station destined to likely grow in the near-term. Image credit: Shujianyang Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA.

Current occupants

The current occupants of China’s station are Shenzhou-15 crewmembers: mission commander Fei Junlong, along with Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu. The trio arrived at the station on November 30, 2022, and, during what was China’s first crew exchange, took over the reins of running the Earth-circling outpost from a departing Shenzhou-14 team.

Scheduled to return to Earth later in May after six months of space duty, the present-day station inhabitants have conducted four spacewalks to date, surpassing stints of extravehicular activities done by previous crews, and in preparation for the arrival of Shenzhou-16 crewmates. The now-orbiting Chinese astronauts have been busily testing, adding to, and upgrading the station, both inside and out, to bolster its future use and growth.

Carrying capacity

Underscoring enhanced space station operations is the upcoming liftoff of the Tianzhou-6 resupply ship.

According to Wang Ran, chief designer of the cargo spacecraft system for the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), this new cargo spacecraft sports a heftier carrying capacity than earlier supply missions, increased from 6.9 to 7.4 tons. Furthermore, the vehicle’s loading volume was increased by about 20 percent, Wang said in a recent interview with China Central Television(CCTV).

Tianzhou-6 will also hold 1.75 tons of propellant, over 1,540 pounds (700 kilograms) of which are intended for refueling the space station.

Space race mentality

Marcia Smith, editor of, puts China’s evolving space station effort into historical perspective.

“China’s space station program has finally achieved what the [former] Soviet Union did in 1978 and the United States and its International Space Station partners have been doing since 2000,” Smith told SpaceRef.

“Still, it’s a feather in their cap and when combined with other developments in their burgeoning space program contributes to a ‘space race’ mentality that could help both Chinese and U.S. space advocates argue for more funding from their respective governments,” Smith added.

Aggressive lunar race

Meanwhile, to Smith’s point, it would appear that the starting gun for that 21st century space race, specifically to travel beyond Earth orbit to the Moon, has been fired.

Wu Weiren, chief designer of China’s lunar exploration program, said in a CCTV interview late last month that by 2030 “the Chinese people will definitely be able to set foot on the Moon. That’s not a problem.”

Along with China’s space station implementation work, the country has mounted an aggressive campaign of robotic lunar exploration, one that leads to large-scale lunar scientific exploration in the future, Wu added.

Through a suite of lunar robotic missions, China aims to complete the building of the basic model of a human-visited international lunar research station situated at the south pole of the Moon by 2030.

Leonard David

Leonard is author of Moon Rush: The New Space Race, Mars – Our Future on the Red Planet, and co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin of Mission to Mars – My Vision for Space Exploration - all published by the National Geographic Society.