Its Eyes Skyward, China Looking To Grow Food In Space

The dream of people living in space has already been met, with a half-dozen people living for 6 months at a time on the International Space Station. While this is helpful in the study of the long-term impact as well as developing the technology and techniques needed for long space missions, it is still little different from the Antarctic missions, with only a handful of people at once surviving, relying on regular supply missions to sustain them.

Recent advances in space agriculture are changing this however. While growing food in space is nothing new, the most ambitious program for this has come not from the partnership of the International Space Station, but from the newest manned space program, from the Peoples Republic of China. Ever since they launched their first taikonaut, Yang Liwei, in 2003, China has focused on bigger, bolder steps forward into space. They went from their first man to first space station in less than a decade, beating both the United States and Russians’ timetable. And China is focusing on the future.

China’s state media on Tuesday announced that scientists just outside Beijing had reached a key breakthrough for not only exploring space, but living in space. Using what the media termed an “ecological life support system” is described as a 300 cubic meter airtight cabin which would allow for the growth of plants and algae, which not only would provide food, but also breathable oxygen for future Taikonauts.

Where does China plan to put these cabins? On the Moon and Mars, according to the reports. China is planning on landing its first robotic probe on the lunar surface next year. The United States went from a robotic lander to a manned lander in only 3 years, 1 month, 18 days, with Surveyor 1 landing on June 2, 1966 and Apollo 11 landing on July 20 1969. With developments like these, along with the long-term astronaut survival tests onboard the Chinese space station Tiangong, it is clear that for China, the sky is not the limit. Already preparations for a new, larger Tiangong as well as further manned missions to the existing module are underway. The new cabin will likely be given its first space test onboard one of the Tiangong units, probably before 2015.

By comparison, the United States is blowing ahead with its own lunar program. Back in August, the first full-sized robotic lander for NASA’s return to the moon, called Morpheus, was involved in an accident during testing, with the next unit being prepared for further testing next year. The Orion capsule, to carry men to the Moon and beyond, is having its first spaceflight in early 2014. The new heavy lift vehicle, called simply the Space Launch System, is on track for its first launch in 2017.

As for Russia, their program is going at a more casual rate, with a landing expected by 2030, a full decade after the United States’ planned return to the moon. This is due, in part, to the age of the Russian equipment. While the United States has improved their systems for decades, the Russians are still relying on equipment originally designed during the cold war. While inexpensive to support, the equipment is showing its age, with a series of accidents plaguing their space program over the past few years. Their program to upgrade and replace this is years behind schedule, with the upgraded Soyuz-2 still not ready, and the Angara, replacing the Proton, years late.

With this step forward, China is showing an ambition not for just the Moon, but Mars. This kind of long-term food supply, being able to grow your own food as you travel to another world, would not only allow for longer term missions of several years, but for larger missions, including potential colonial missions. When asked about the future of China in space, taikonaut Yang Liwei is quoted by the state media as wishing to see a branch of the Chinese communist party established, permenantly in space, saying:

If we establish a party branch in space, it would also be the ‘highest’ of its kind in the world.

The new space race is now falling to one between the United States and China. Who will control the highest ground in the future is anyone’s guess.