Since China became the third country to independently put people into space in 2003, the country has put 11 Chinese astronauts, sometimes called taikonauts, into orbit. They have walked in space, docked their spacecraft with a space station, and two stayed in a space station for more than a month.

But for people who have gotten used to non-stop good news about China’s space program development, it seems like things have been quiet for a while. Some blame a failed rocket launch in 2017, but others say China simply has no reason to move fast because future space station modules aren’t ready for launch.

The last time China sent astronauts into space was in 2016. Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong spent 33 days in China’s Tiangong-2 space lab three years ago and safely returned, setting a new record for China’s manned space missions.

Chinese astronauts Wang Yaping, Nie Haisheng and Zhang Xiaoguang (left to right) before boarding the Shenzhou 10 spaceflight in June 2013. (Picture: AP)

Since then, China made history by being the first country to land a probe on the far side of the moon, but there’s been no breakthrough in China’s manned space program.

On China’s Q&A site Zhihu, a question posted in June this year asking why China’s manned space program has slowed down has drawn 183 posts and more than 3 million views. 

“I think that China’s human space program may have progressed less quickly than previously expected,” said Blaine Curio, founder of Orbital Gateway Consulting, a Hong Kong-based consultancy focusing on space and satellite telecommunications.

One of the reasons, according to Curio, is that the failure of the (unmanned) Long March 5 rocket caused a lot of projects to be held up. The heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket could supposedly send a 25-ton payload into low Earth orbit and was designed to launch space station components, communication satellites and deep-space probes.

In Northwest China’s Gansu Province, astronauts Nie Haisheng and Liu Wang exit from a re-entry capsule during wilderness survival training in May 2018. (Picture: Xinhua)

In 2017, minutes after taking off from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan province, the Long March 5 crashed into the ocean, reportedly due to “abnormal changes” that happened to a turbofan in one of the rocket’s main engines.

It was seen as a major setback to the country’s space program. It was said to hinder the deployment of military satellites, sending China’s space station components into space and collecting samples from the moon. China is now close to the third launch of Long March 5, and it’s scheduled to debut the Long March 5B variant in the first half of 2020.

But some disagree that the Long March 5 failure caused a delay in China’s crewed spaceflight project. Hani Mohammadi, who runs a website tracking China’s space program, said that China has completed its crewed tests, and the space station modules aren’t ready to be brought up by the Long March 5 yet.

“I don’t believe they are slowing down,” Mohammadi said. “They just don’t have a reason to do it so fast.”

The prototype of the space station’s core module, Tianhe, has just passed a final review, and the flight model will be manufactured in the near future. And it’s still producing the prototypes of the two experiment capsules, Wentian and Mengtian. State media also said that the country is now selecting the next crew members for the upcoming space station mission.

But the Tianhe launch has already been delayed, as the original launch had been planned for 2018. The 2017 Long March 5 launch failure reportedly contributed to the delayed plans, and the current timeline to complete the space station is between 2022 and 2024.

But China’s social media users seem to think along the same lines as Mohammadi. The top-voted post on the Zhihu question, answered by a verified account of a PhD student studying space engineering, argued that China’s manned space program has aimed to achieve the most with the smallest budget. So China is waiting for the space station modules to be finished, in addition for the Long March 5 rocket to be ready, before continuing manned missions, the student argued.

Once completed, the Chinese space station will be able to accommodate up to six astronauts and last for at least 10 years. Some international research experiments for the space station have already been selected.

Completing the space station is the third and final step of China’s crewed space program. The first two steps were to successfully send an astronaut into space and to launch a space laboratory to make breakthroughs such as extravehicular activities, spacecraft docking and short term space labs. China said it completed the first two steps in 2017.

Mohammadi said there’s a possibility that the International Space Station might retire after 2025, which could be a chance for China to have its own space station ready for international cooperation.

But Orbital Gateway Consulting’s Curio said there could be another reason for slow developments: China’s President Xi Jinping isn’t excited enough about space.

Under Xi’s “space dream,” China aims to become a “space power in all respects.” But Curio said he speculates that Xi has bigger things to focus on.

At the command center of China’s manned space program in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks with astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong, who were in the space lab Tiangong-2 in November 2016. (Picture: Xinhua)

“It seems that President Xi is not such a fan of space in the way that he could be said to be a fan of AI, or something more mundane like football,” Curio said. “And the CCP being conservative in general means that the big, flashy, economically unsustainable projects that require passion and ‘being a fan’ are less likely to get support, all else equal.”

Curio added that things might be different on a provincial level. Several governors were previously leaders of China’s space program, he said, and they tend to give a lot of support to companies that want to build small- or medium-lift rockets.