For the first time in five years, China has sent a crewed mission to space. A rocket that launched from Northwest China carried three astronauts into orbit, where it docked with the under-construction space station, called Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace.
The crew will spend three months testing equipment, including a life-support system. They’ll also conduct experiments, perform spacewalks, and prepare living quarters for expansion before more modules are added to the space station next year. China will conduct a total of 11 missions this year and next to complete the space station.
Chinese government officials dubbed the mission a “complete success.” Sun Jun, deputy director of the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center, told CCTV, the state broadcaster, “It was a perfect rendezvous and docking process.”
This is the latest achievement in China’s growing list of space exploration feats. Last month, China became only the second nation after the US to successfully land a lunar rover.
The International Space Station is set to see its funding expire in 2024, unless Congress and its international partners agree to extend the station’s life. Otherwise, we may see China’s space station as the only one in orbit.
China’s space station is a long time coming, as a 2011 law passed by Congress barred NASA from collaborating with China in space exploration.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson congratulated China in a statement and added that he looked “forward to the scientific discoveries to come.” He also offered Congress this warning of China: “They’re going to be landing humans on the moon. That should tell us something about our need to get off our duff and get our Human Landing System program going vigorously.”
Representative Michael Waltz of Florida called attention to just how quickly China is advancing in space, candidly saying “They are kicking our butts up there, and it’s a real problem… more Chinese launches in space last year than the rest of the world combined, including the United States.” He added, “You can’t be number one on Earth if you are number two in space.”
Although China plans to collaborate with space agencies of other countries in the future, it’s doubtful that the United States will be near the front of the line. Are we witnessing the beginning of a new international space race?
While these two space agencies race to the moon, we have interesting news from the commercial space industry.
SpaceX’s FAA Problems in Boca Chica
There’s a chance SpaceX may be forced to delay the first Starship orbit mission because of the FAA’s wildlife concerns.
SpaceX hopes to carry out the mission in July, but may be forced to push the launch date back because of ongoing assessments of wildlife and ecosystems around the launch area.
The FAA is requiring SpaceX to conduct an environmental assessment to confirm that nearby wildlife won’t be harmed by the Starship-Super Heavy system.
When the FAA gives SpaceX a launch license, the first orbital test of Starship is slated to take around 90 minutes, where it will launch from its South Texas launch pad and return to earth off the coast of Hawaii.
As Elon Musk eyes an uncrewed Starship launch to Mars in 2024, followed by a crewed launch in 2026, it looks like he’ll have to set his sights much closer in the short term, specifically on the coastal ecosystems of South Texas.
In 2014, SpaceX was approved through a FEIS (Finale Environmental Impact Statement) to launch the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets from Boca Chica TX, but as of today, the site has never been used for that purpose. Instead, operations have been focused on Starship and its Super Heavy Booster.
Operating outside the scope of their MOU has brought up multiple issues.
Excessive closures to Boca Chica Beach State Park and the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge have exceeded what was anticipated.
The Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club, Corpus Christi-based Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program and American Bird Conservancy believe impacts have been and will continue to be, much larger than what was outlined in the 2014 FEIS resulting in unforeseen/unanticipated consequences such as explosions, brush fires, increased traffic, resulting in more risk to various endangered species.
Additionally, with the Starship being powered by sub-cooled methane and oxygen, storage and use of large methane quantities was not part of the 2014 EIS.
While conservationists are focused on the impact from SpaceX, areas surrounding the complex continue to be ignored. Beaches are filled with trash and wildlife sanctuaries (for turtles and migratory birds), are littered with trash.
We should note: NASA did extensive studies on migratory birds and many other species in and around the Cape Canaveral area to understand the impacts of rocket construction, liftoff and associated emissions. Their final report revealed a less than minor impact and commented that birds simply took off when the rockets did and returned a short while later.
However, it’s more than just the impact on wildlife that has officials concerned.
On June 11, Cameron County District Attorney (Luis V. Saenz) sent a letter to Starship Operations, stating it may be in violation of two state laws that include closing two county roads and employing security guards that may not be licensed by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
The deadline for SpaceX to respond was Monday, June 14th.
Coincidentally, on that same day at 2:12AM Elon Musk tweeted:
After several successful launches, land overflight earlier in trajectory passes E-sub-c Safety threshold. That said Starship will also launch from Cape long-term.
With so much riding on the success of SpaceX, grounding Starship indefinitely would not only impact the local economy but also our national security.