Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Past, present and future space stations

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When we talk about Space Station, we immediately think of the ISS (International Space Station) which revolves above our heads. But the ISS was not built from nothing, it is the culmination of a line of more or less fortunate predecessors.

In the post-war years, the great space nations, led by the USA and the USSR , wondered whether Man could live in space ; the idea of ​​space stations germinated in the brains of Korolev and von Braun. It was for them the first step towards other planets. Their advent was then inevitable.

We will review them in chronological order and study the particularities of each as well as the dangers and problems they have faced. The glorious ancestors: Saliut , MIR and Skylab. Currently the ISS and the Chinese station are in orbit. We are considering for a new (re) conquest of the Moon (and further), a mini space station (Gateway) around the Moon, serving as an outpost for future lunar and distant missions.

Salyut Stations

Illustration from the Saliut 4 space station. Credit: NASA

It was our Soviet friends who drew the first with the first habitable station Saliut 1 launched in 1971. Let’s not forget that the Soviets have just lost the race to the Moon, they needed this success: to be the first to have a station orbital.

It is launched by a powerful Proton rocket, and can accommodate three cosmonauts who go there thanks to a Soyuz module. Later, a more evolved version of Saliut will have two docking ports, thus making it possible to accept two Soyuz or a Soyuz and a Progress supply ship (vessels still in use).

The first problems arrive: Soyuz 10 is scheduled to moor, but the hatch does not open, so back to Earth, Soyuz 11 takes over. Perfect mooring, stay on board for about twenty days, then return to Earth. The cosmonauts are not equipped with waterproof spacesuits, a problem occurs during re-entry, a too strong explosion of all the explosive bolts causes the capsule to lose its atmosphere while one is still at altitude. The crew is lost! Another national drama for the Russians who have just lost Gagarin. Soyuz will be modified, it will become the Soyuz-T.

The new generation will be Saliut 6 and 7 with two docking ports. Saliut 6 was launched in 1977 and Saliut 7 in 1982. Saliut 6 was de-orbited in 1982 and Saliut 7 in 1991.

Saliut is made up of a single 18 t structure which fits under the fairing of a Proton and gives the crew a volume of 100 m3 available. For a crew of three (two later) it’s not too bad, we’ll do better with the MIR and ISS. Saliut includes an orbital laboratory and a residential part.

The concept originated in the 1960s when the USSR was leading the space race. From there will be born the first versions. Originally, we are even studying a military version (Almaz), we are in the midst of the Cold War. Then the project becomes civil under the name that we know. It should be noted that it was this station that took away the first French astronaut, Jean Loup Chrétien, on June 24, 1982. He remained there until July 2. It is the first French manned flight. He will later return to space aboard Mir. It was these Saliut stations that enabled the Russians to familiarize themselves with life in long-term space, which would lead to the Mir station.

Skylab Station

When America wins the race for the Moon, the public gradually loses interest in space, and the missions following Apollo 17 are canceled (A18 to 20) by NASA and Congress. There remained capsules (one would become Apollo 18, for a rendezvous with Soyuz) and Saturn V launchers. By cleverly tinkering with the third stage of one of these rockets (the S-IVb) it would become structure of Skylab. We are going to equip it with large solar panels to provide electricity on board. It will be surmounted by an adaptation system to receive an Apollo capsule and the telescope. It will become the first American space station from 1973 to 1979.

The station itself was sent into low Earth orbit by a Saturn V rocket in May 1973, the crew to follow a few days later aboard an Apollo capsule (CSM: Command and Service Module) atop a Saturn IB . Three missions were planned.

Skylab’s life hasn’t been smooth sailing either. Something went wrong at the launch of the orbital laboratory, the ground controllers note that the interior temperature increases enormously, likewise, the level of electricity production is not in conformity, the solar panels do not seem to work. We change the orientation of the station to reduce the temperature, but that will not be enough. Is the mission lost?

In desperation, the launch of the crew is delayed. We must find a solution. I find our American friends terrific, when it is necessary to save a mission, they know how to react quickly. We quickly realize that the protective screen has disappeared, we will replace it with a DIY “umbrella” in Mylar that an astronaut will deploy when the time comes.

One of the solar panels also disappeared during the launch and the second did not open, again a tinkering with shears should allow deployment. If all this works, the station will be operational and the telescope and the solar observatory will be a first in space. Now just run!

On May 25, 1973, the crew (Charles C. Conrad Jr., Commander, Paul J. Weitz, pilot, Joseph Kerwin, scientist) took off from Cape Kennedy. The lab has been in space for 11 days without cooling or electricity. The Skylab I mission is ready. First overview to visualize the extent of the damage. The heat shield disappeared, the solar panel did not open, the second was torn off!

The parasol is deployed, the solar panel unlocked, the astronauts go inside where the temperature is now normal (26°C in a few days), the electrical power is weak but sufficient; the station is saved. The crew can work, they will stay on board for almost a month. The first studies of the Sun outside the Earth’s atmosphere take place and the crew has the chance to witness a solar flare live, which they will follow from start to finish.

Another mission will follow, the second, Skylab II with Bean, Lousma and Garriot, they will stay 60 days in space. They will continue scientific experiments on the Sun and the study of the Earth as well as various medical functions. They will carry out numerous EVAs (extravehicular exits). They will be the first crew to highlight the influence of microgravity on the body. Plus it’s a real resort, there’s plenty of room, much bigger than Saliut. It’s a repeat of what will happen with the ISS. We even try inside which is so vast, something that looks like the MMU – Manned Maneuvering Unit,

And this is the final Skylab III mission, launched by the crew (Carr, Pogue and Gibson) on November 16, 1973; this will be the longest mission, since they will not return to Earth until February 8, 1974. Numerous scientific observations.

Their schedule on board was more and more complicated and loaded, which gave rise to many problems with the ground crews, some even spoke of mutiny! However, all ends well.

In conclusion concerning Skylab, nobody talks about this mission which was the precursor of the ISS and which brought a multitude of information to those who will develop this ISS. We have studied the Sun, we have been able to study the Earth from all angles and at all wavelengths, we have broken records for duration in orbit. We should have continued to launch crews but the development of the shuttle consumed all credits. Skylab reentered the atmosphere in July 1979.

At Mir station

The Russians jump a notch in the difficulty, Mir is the first orbital station built in several modules. Human occupation becomes permanent from Mir! The word Mir in Russian has two meanings: peace or world.

It is in fact a continuation of the Saliut station comprising several modules. The first module, the central module, was launched in February 1986 by a Proton rocket. It comprises a total of five other modules which will be launched successively. It will be noted that the central module has at its end an adaptation part comprising five docking ports for the additional modules.

The Kvant-1 module was docked to the centerpiece in March 1987. It contains scientific and astronomical instruments. Kvant means quantum or quantum. The following modules were later added: Kvant-2 (1989); Kristall (1990); Spektr and Priroda (in 1996). Spektr is particularly dedicated to the study of the Earth. It is easily recognized by its 4 solar panels.

Note that the Kristall module dedicated more to biology has a docking lock for the American space shuttle, it had moreover been brought by the latter (Atlantis) during a trip to Mir. The last module is Priroda (nature in French), also dedicated to Earth observation, it also carries a synthetic aperture radar.

Mir welcomed a large number of crews, at first Russians or citizens of “sister” countries, then the admission of other nationalities was authorized. In particular, French cosmonauts have participated in numerous stays on Mir, such as:

  • In 1988, when Jean-Loup Chrétien returned to space, with the Aragatz mission, he stayed a little less than a month aboard Mir and carried out a 6-hour EVA.
  • In 1992, Michel Tognini for the Antarès mission which will last 15 days.
  • In 1993, it was Jean-Pierre Haigneré’s turn to board the Altaïr mission for 3 weeks.
  • In 1996, Claudie André-Deshays (who would become Claudie Haigneré) was the first French astronaut, she took part in the Cassiopée mission and stayed on board for fifteen days. She is a doctor, rheumatologist, doctor of neuroscience, and will have the chance to go to the ISS later too.
  • In 1998, our “leaping Basque” Léopold Heyarts was sent aboard Mir for the Pégase mission. It lasted 3 weeks and he too had the chance to then fly to the ISS.

But the great novelty with Mir is the collapse of the USSR which has just occurred, it will promote Russian-American rapprochement. The shuttles will have the right to moor at Mir and participate in stays with Russian cosmonauts. This is the Shuttle-Mir program from 1994 to 1998. More than ten shuttles will connect to Mir during this period.

American astronauts will also stay on board, but the quality of the station is beginning to leave something to be desired. We also said a lot about the smell on board Mir, and well it’s true, Mir smelled at best… feet (dirty of course). On the other hand, mold of all kinds has been detected on board. It helped not to make the same mistakes when designing the ISS.

In fact, the Russians no longer have a lot of money to maintain it properly (leaks, dubious diving suits, etc.) and what had to happen happened: we came close to a major disaster, fire broke out on board! We are on February 23, 1997, there are six astronauts on board including an American, Jerry Linenger. During normal work on an oxygen generator, a cartridge ignites, the fire spreads. A very important smoke invaded all the station, the cosmonauts are obliged to wear masks, one hesitates to evacuate.

But we manage to master the station. Everyone was hot, it was the most serious accident with the collision of a Progress a few months later which caused a crack (Michael Foale remembers it). We came close to disaster!

Anyway, it’s time to retire Mir. Mir will be desorbed in early 2001 after 15 years in operation. A more amusing anecdote now, the Soviets wanting to accustom their cosmonauts to long duration flights (Mars simulation), Serguei Krikalev had to stay at least 10 months on board, but it was between 1991 and 1992, but at that time, it is chaos on the ground, the USSR no longer exists, Russia is reborn. Krikalev left Soviet citizen returned … Russian, his country had partially disappeared. To reward him, he will participate in the ISS adventure. He will go 6 times in space!

At the International Space Station, the ISS

It was in 1982 that the USA, under Reagan’s mandate, in the middle of the Cold War, began to think about such a space station, it was to be called Freedom at the beginning and was intended as a counterpoint to the Soviet Saliut and Mir stations. But probably the cost appearing enormous, one turns later to an international cooperation.

It is Europe (ESA) which decides first, then Canada (CSA) which will provide a robotic arm like on the shuttle and Japan (JAXA). The station is renamed Alpha. Then in 1986 the terrible shock of the Challenger accident occurred which delayed and completely modified this project. The initial project, costing less than $10 billion, has been revised upwards to $25 billion, which will be far from its final cost (estimated at more than $100 billion).

The communist regime having collapsed, the Clinton administration in 1993 invited Russia (Roscosmos) to participate in the project, thanks to its experience with the Mir station; Russia also had in its boxes a Mir-2 station under study, this will serve as the basis for the first Russian module. It was at this time that the station received its name from ISS.

The design of this station is modular. It must be placed in low Earth orbit (LEO: Low Earth Orbit) at an altitude of 400 km and permanently occupied by an international crew of astronauts. Occupied at the beginning by 3 people then by 6 from 2009 permanently. Its construction will start in 1998. When finished, the ISS will be 110 m long, 75 m wide and 30 m high. Its mass is of the order of 400 tons. The solar panels, once all installed, should provide more than 100 kW of electricity and cover 2500 m2.

A dozen modules are pressurized providing a space of approximately 900 m3 of which 400 m3 are actually habitable. The construction will last more than 10 years and will require 150 EVA. The principle: an axis for the pressurized modules and an axis for the beam supporting instruments and solar panels.

The ISS is not positioned haphazardly in space. We have seen that the ISS is built in a cross, an axis with the pressurized modules and an axis with the beam supporting the external equipment (solar panels, coolers, etc.). The ISS advances in its orbit in the direction of the pressurized part and the front is towards the Harmony node and the Columbus and Kibo laboratories. The back is towards the Zvezda module. Under these conditions, the top is defined towards the Zenith and the bottom towards the Nadir. In the same way, the right (starboard) and the left (port) are defined as on a ship.

Even at an altitude of 400 km, the atmosphere exists, it is very tenuous, but present and produces a trail on the ISS which inevitably brings it back down to Earth. Moreover, this trail is not constant, it also depends on solar activity. The order of magnitude of altitude loss is approx. 100 m/day or a few km per month. This is of course unacceptable, the station’s orbit must be permanently raised.

Several possibilities exist: Progress freighters, European ATVs, Japanese HTV freighters, and the Zvezda and Zarya modules as backup. These different vessels/modules are equipped with engines allowing the station to increase in speed, thus raising its orbit by a few km. In addition, these motors can also be activated in the event of a collision alert with space debris.

The first element was launched in 1998 by the Russians (Proton rocket), it is the Zarya module (dawn), it is built by the Russians but paid for by the Americans. This will be the starting point for connecting other modules. Zarya is relatively spacious.

At the end of 1998, the STS-88 shuttle hooked up the American junction module (we call them nodes) number 1, which was to take the sweet name of Unity. In 2000, the service module Zvezda (star) was added, this will be the first element of the life structure for astronauts. It will accommodate two astronauts. It was in fact the heart of the Mir station and was to be used to develop the stillborn Mir-2. From this moment the ISS is habitable.

In October 2000, a shuttle mission brings the first beam element (Z1 Z beam for Zenith) to which all future beam elements will be attached as well as a docking port. All missions to the ISS will be called “Expedition N” starting with N=1. Currently September 2020) we are on Expedition 63.

And the first manned mission (Expedition 1) is a mixed Russian-American crew that includes our famous friend Krikalev. Leaving Baikonur on October 31, 2000 with Soyuz TM-31 for a long stay of 140 days. The role of this first crew: start up the station and prepare for the arrival of the second mission.

During this stay, several shuttle missions came to visit them, each time bringing new equipment and in particular a pair of solar panels, thus increasing the production of electricity on board.

It was the STS-97 mission that allowed the installation of the first pair of solar panels as well as the home base for the next Destiny module. This American laboratory, Destiny, is going to be brought by the shuttle Atlantis in February 2001, it will be mounted following the port which has just been installed at the front of the ISS.

Discovery will serve as a return carrier for this first expedition, the astronauts will have remained on board for more than 4 months. They are replaced by the Expedition 2 which had just arrived with the same Discovery. They will stay on board for almost 6 months.

It was during this second expedition that we will install the Canadian articulated arm, Canadarm2 and the Quest airlock allowing safe exits in space for American astronauts; this being done through many EVAs.

How do we work in space? Hardly! Weightlessness does not help, because according to Newton’s 3rd law, if you do an action, there is immediately a reaction in the opposite direction. So if you screw a screw with a screwdriver, you’re the one turning!

So you have to hang on somewhere. On the other hand, the tools must be sized for astronaut gloves. A solution to limit the number on board: 3D printer to make tools.

In addition, you must first train on Earth to repeat the movements that you will do in space. To this end, we perform all these movements in a pool supposed to approach spatial weightlessness. A replica of the ISS is submerged in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston.

So what do our astronauts breathe on board the ISS and in during their EVA? On board the station: we breathe exactly the same air as on Earth at ground level and at a pressure of 1 bar (exactly 1013 mb or 14.7 PSI).

CO2 is removed by a chemical filter called zeolite. Other gases produced by the human body are removed using activated carbon filters, all thanks to equipment located in the Tranquility module.

The air is made from electrolysis of water (separation of H and O from H2O by electric current created by the solar panels), the hydrogen is evacuated to the outside and the oxygen is sent to the station . This mod is located in Destiny. There is also a similar system (Elektron) in the Russian part of the ISS (Zvezda), but it does not seem to have given complete satisfaction.

In addition, in the event of a problem there are always backup systems with numerous oxygen cylinders brought by the tankers and there are on board “oxygen candles”, the SFOG (solid fuel oxygen generator). The same system is used on board planes, when you pull on the mask, it triggers the chemical reaction. Each candle can provide oxygen for one day for an astronaut.

Now about EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) and spacewalking suits. Well it’s not a simple operation, it takes several hours of preparation. Why ? The air in the suit is not at all the same as that of the ISS. Indeed, the astronaut will breathe pure oxygen under low pressure. If we wanted to use air at 1 bar, the suit would be too rigid and difficult to handle.

We will therefore use a lower pressure (roughly 1/3) but at this pressure there is not enough oxygen for the brain, so we use pure oxygen. This is the reason why, as for divers, astronauts are asked to ventilate themselves with pure oxygen for three hours in order to free themselves from the nitrogen in the blood, before going out.

This is the role of the Quest airlock. If this forced ventilation were not done, an accident identical to decompression accidents would occur outside, nitrogen bubbles would form in the blood. So we can’t go out on a whim! In addition, the pressure of the ISS must be adapted before the exit, so it is an operation that must be perfectly planned. The reserves for an EVA can reach ten hours.

The different types of diving suits: There are two types of diving suits, the American and the Russian. The American is called EMU: Extra Vehicular Mobility Unit and the Russian Orlan (means eagle in Russian). The EMU is mainly made up of two parts: the garment itself (SSA: Space Suit Assembly) and the PLSS (Portable Life Support System) “backpack”. It has 14 different layers to protect against micrometeorites and temperature. The Orlan is in one piece, the rear part comprising the water and oxygen reserves and all the electronics opens like a refrigerator door and the cosmonaut slides in alone. Both are equipped with a mini thruster in case of unplanned distance from the Station. The Russians use their own airlock, the Pirs module.

How do we live on board the ISS? If the very first astronauts had to hold back (or not, see Alan Shepard’s flight), it is no longer conceivable for long flights. The Apollo astronauts had bags to collect the mixions, that was enough, the missions were relatively short. But with the space stations and the shuttle, the situation has changed, we had to take an interest in the problem.

The Russians were ahead with the Mir station and their system installed in the Russian part of the ISS (in the Zvezda module), it is for this reason that NASA signed a contract with Energia (Russia) for a new toilet system with slightly more private space than the current system. The urine should be collected by an American system which will recycle it into drinking water. The Americans preferred to buy this system from the Russians rather than develop one themselves. This new system will be installed on the American side of the station, with the old system remaining on the Russian side. This extension is necessary because the station’s permanent crew of 6 has been a reality since 2009.

The big difference with terrestrial systems is obviously the absence of gravity; it is replaced by suction by air, likewise different parts of the body (feet, thighs) have to be attached with Velcro in order to stay in the right position otherwise you would start to float. Solids are compacted and stored before disposal, and urine is recycled. The solid remains are recovered in plastic bags which will then be stored in a Progress and will burn with it in the atmosphere.

Everything is recovered on board the ISS, so waste water such as: urine, water needed for hygiene, as well as humidity from the air conditioning. Everything is recycled by the WRS (Water Recovery System). This avoids costly transport of water containers from Earth. Urine is filtered by reverse osmosis, water is separated from urea, water at this stage is recoverable.

In the beginning, the food on board the ISS was provided and packaged half by the USA and Russia. (I know that at the time when there were French people on board the shuttle or the ISS, there was an exception and our astronauts were able to board a more “typical” food). Since that time, many nationalities having come on board, they have been able to bring their specialties. This results in a variety of containers, boxes and food types that reflects the variety of different cultures. The kitchen part is located in the Russian part of the ISS (Zvezda) and an additional table in Destiny and US food must adapt to Russian utensils, in particular for rehydrating and heating dishes.

The Russians tend to use tins and tubes, while the Americans use freeze-dried and rehydrated food sachets. Russian packaging hasn’t changed much since the 1970s.

Space food must be specially packaged so that it is not contaminated by microbes, which would cause enormous problems up there. The plastic sheet that coats the US food is of course a nylon-based plastic multilayer with oxygen “barrier” layers. The product comes sealed on 3 sides and NASA adds the food and purges it with nitrogen before vacuuming and sealing the fourth side. They are then wrapped in aluminum foil. To rehydrate it we introduce a special straw in the opening and hop it’s good as originally (it seems). It may appear in the form of a vacuum bag, frozen or in a bowl with an adhesive lid. There is a refrigerator assembly (RFR) in the ISS to store these dishes.

The bread poses a problem, because of the crumbs, because they can infiltrate everywhere in weightlessness (filters, nose, eyes, etc.) and are therefore dangerous. Bread is therefore not present on board, there is only a kind of tortilla. Similarly, salt and pepper do not exist in powder form as for Earthlings, they are in liquid form.

And the taste? The tongue perceives flavors differently in space, the dishes are strongly spiced so that they can have taste. Many top chefs design dishes for the astronauts who enjoy them. There are also special meals for Thanksgiving, Christmas etc.

The ISS is an orbital laboratory that allows experiments impossible to be done on Earth due to gravity. There are several labs: Destiny (American), Colombus (European), Kibo (Japanese) etc. The experiments are of different kinds:

  • Influence of microgravity on the organism.
  • Study of radiation and biocontamination.
  • Physics of fluids, combustion…
  • Fundamental physics.

A typical day: given that there are 16 sunrises and sunsets per day, we had to agree on the time on board: it will be GMT (UTC).

  • Waking up of the troops: 6:00 a.m.
  • Breakfast.
  • Contact with the mission center to know the workload of the day.
  • Start of the day’s work: 8:00 a.m.: compulsory exercise (treadmill, rowing machine, etc., one in the morning, one in the afternoon).
  • End of the working day around 7:30 p.m.
  • Dinner and common discussion.
  • Free time, relaxation and rest: we sleep in bags hung on the walls, they contain personal items and a PC.

We don’t work on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. We wash with wet wipes, a shampoo without rinsing and the toothpaste is to be swallowed.

Until 2007, it was mainly beam elements (solar panels, instruments, etc.) that were transported by the various crews. So much so that the ISS is beginning to have its final look. It is from the end of 2007 that important new modules will be added. The Harmony or Node 2 module, built by the Europeans (Thales Alenia) was transported by the STS-120 shuttle in October 2007 and assembled at the station. It must serve as a liaison between Destiny, the American module and the future European Columbus and Japanese Kibo laboratories which will come with the following missions.

On February 8, 2010, space shuttle Endeavor (mission STS 130) headed for the ISS with two new European modules: the Node-3 junction element called Tranquility, and the cupola (Cupola). These two elements put an end to the construction of the ISS.

In addition, Node-3 takes care of onboard CO2 removal, oxygen production and water recycling. Not insignificant also, this element includes additional toilets, necessary when 6 astronauts are on board permanently.

To this node-3 will be attached the panoramic observation window (the dome or Cupola) which in addition to observing the Earth should also make it possible to monitor and control the maneuvers of the telemanipulator arms.

Several ships have come to dock with the ISS to bring either supplies or astronauts, or both.

  • The space shuttle, she participated in the construction of the ISS.
  • The Soyuz vessels, real 2CVs from space to bring astronauts.
  • Progress cargo ships, a Soyuz version to bring supplies and consumables.
  • ESA’s ATV charges.
  • Japanese HTV freighters.
  • Cygnus spacecraft from Orbital Sciences.
  • SpaceX’s Dragon ships.
  • The new ones: Orion, Crew Dragon, Starliner…

All these vessels will dock at different ports of the ISS, these are not all identical, we are thinking about a common system.

The dangers of spaceflight:

  • The effect of microgravity for long stays. Blood up, loss of Ca, elongation. Study on the Kellys (twins) one aboard the ISS the other on Earth! The DNA has been altered. Deformation of the eyeballs.
  • Protection against objects in orbit. The American modules are made of aluminum sheets of a few mm, mounted on the outside and 10cm away from the hull of the ISS. The interspace filled with multi-layered absorbent materials like Kevlar to increase efficiency. Certain parts, the most important, the inhabited modules, are externally equipped with thicker aluminum plates.
  • But a more insidious danger awaits them, radiation. More than 6 months exposed to this dose of radiation, they have exceeded their radiation capital for their entire life

I brought them from the ISS

The construction of the ISS took almost 13 years, required more than 100 rocket launches and 160 EVAs. The estimated current cost is $100 billion. The ISS has been permanently occupied since the year 2000, now by 6 astronauts. Its existence is still questioned due to the astronomical cost; however, NASA and Roscosmos have decided to extend the station’s lifespan (meaning funding) to 2024, now 2030, despite the Russians wanting to build their own station. It would be a shame to let such a beautiful experimental tool burn in the atmosphere. Possibilities: privatization, space hotel etc.

Tiangong, at Chinoise station

We know very little about the Chinese space program, we only know that it is very ambitious: permanent space station; the Moon, Mars etc. They have been working for a long time on the outline of a space station, which is inspired by that of the Soviets, like Saliut, their Shenzhou vessels being, moreover, improved versions of the Soyuz. Let us recall that China had been excluded by the USA from the ISS program for fear of espionage, as one might suppose, and of leaks towards a more military application of space.

Finally China launched the first element of its orbital station Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace) in 2011, it weighs nearly 8500 kg, for comparison, the basic module of the ISS, Zaya has a double mass. An unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft was launched a few days later and made an automatic rendezvous with the Tiangong module.

It was not until June 2012 that China, using a “Long March 2F” rocket, launched a new Shenzhou-9 spacecraft with, for the first time, a 33-year-old female astronaut on board: her name is Liu Yang, a native of Henan province, she is also an airplane pilot.

In mid-September 2016, China launched its second Tiangong 2 space station, still by a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan space base in the Gobi desert.

Tiangong 2 station: 10m long, 3.3m in diameter, 8.6 tonnes in orbit at 390km altitude. This station is a stage of a more ambitious project, China is indeed interested in Mars. It is composed of two modules, a life and experiments module and a storage and propulsion module.

From 2020/2021, China is expected to build a more ambitious space station, Tiangong-3. It would include 3 modules inspired by previous versions and would provide nearly 100 m3 of living space. It should be noted that if we maintain the abandonment of the ISS around 2022-2024, China will have the only space station in service at that time!

The Gateway Lunar Station

A possible return to the Moon by many nations, notably the USA, leads to the development of an international space base around the Moon serving as a starting point for lunar expeditions (Gateway).

Inspired by the ISS, it could serve as an outpost to go to the Moon or further. This outpost should contain several modules, some of which are still being defined.

  • Power and Propulsion Module (PPE) provided by JPL and Maxar, electrical and chemical propulsion and communications center. Launch by private company.
  • US Habitation Module built by Northrop Grumman, based on Cygnus freighters sent by Orbital ATK.
  • ESPRIT (European System Providing Refuelling, Infrastructure and Telecommunications) fourni par l’ESA.
  • International Habitation Module.
  • Gateway Logistics Module with Canadarm 3 robotic arm provided by the Canadians.
  • Airlock Module for EVAs.
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