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June 13, 2012 

China to Launch Piloted Space Capsule

UCS Issues Paper on Chinese Intentions for Building a Space Station

China is expected to launch a piloted space capsule to dock with an experimental space laboratory as early as this Saturday. The launch is a trial run for eventually docking a capsule with a Chinese space station.

If successful, this month’s launch will be another milestone for China’s space program—and provide more fodder for U.S. speculation about Chinese intentions. U.S. officials have been concerned about China’s space program for some time. Some argue that it is driven by military objectives, while others claim China wants to beat the United States back to the moon.

A backgrounder published today by the Union of Concerned Scientists, based on recently published Chinese histories, clarifies how and why China decided to build its own space station. Written by UCS Senior Analyst Gregory Kulacki, “Why China is Building a Space Station” reveals:

  • The upcoming docking mission is an intermediate step in China’s 30-year plan to build a space station. The plan emerged from a contentious internal debate that began in March 1986 and engaged hundreds of Chinese experts in many fields, as well as the leadership of numerous Chinese institutions.
  • China set the goal of constructing a space station very early on. There is no record of debate about a human mission to the moon or other long-term objectives. Those who argued China should pursue a human spaceflight program never disagreed about a space station as the ultimate objective.
  • China’s future space station will be significantly smaller than the International Space Station. Although China has not yet approved a final design and has many technical decisions to make, some Chinese program planners estimate the space station will weigh 60 to 80 metric tons, which is five to six times lighter than the International Space Station.
  • From the beginning, and throughout the development of the Chinese human spaceflight program, China’s goal was never to catch up or surpass other nations but to avoid falling too far behind.
  • The public and official Chinese debate over a sending Chinese astronauts to the moon centers on the economic cost and a desire for greater international cooperation. China’s policy preference appears to be to work with other spacefaring nations on a human lunar mission.

“It will be at least another decade before China completes its space station,” Kulacki said, “and the Chinese are not in a hurry and are not rushing to beat the United States to the moon or anywhere else. They are following their long-term plan they began two decades ago to build a space station that will be roughly the same size as the first U.S. space station, Skylab, which circled the Earth back in the 1970s.”


The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

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