China has announced plans to launch the core module for their own space station next year, with additional modules intended to follow soon thereafter. Once completed, China’s space station will be smaller than the current International Space Station, but with the ISS slated for retirement in 2024, China may be the only nation with a permanent address in Earth’s orbit in the very near future.

The core module, named “Tianhe-1,” will be launched on a new rocket platform designed by the Chinese to carry extremely heavy loads into space. The March-5 heavyweight carrier rocket will also be used to deliver additional modules to the space station, including two laboratories that will dock to the sides of the primary module. The two-stage rocket is said to have a payload capacity of 25 tons for low-Earth orbit, and 14 tons for much higher missions to geostationary transfer orbit. The Chinese space agency intends to have their space station completed by 2022, two years before the International Space Station is expected to conclude its tour of duty.

The Chinese space station will initially be smaller than the ISS, which weighs in at a healthy 420 tons, but China has made it clear that their design will accept future additions, including the possibility of international cooperation on future modules. It has already been assembled on the ground and is currently undergoing testing, according to Bao Weimin, director with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation and a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

The space station has been designed to function without refit for “dozens of years” in Earth’s orbit, and was constructed specifically to be able to withstand collisions with or navigate around the increasingly high levels of debris found circling our planet.

“For the big pieces (of space debris), we could conduct evasive maneuvers, and for those measuring less than 10 cm in size, we just take the hit,” Bao said, adding that the module’s design allows for easy repair or replacement of external components.

China also has announced plans to land another probe on the Moon, this time with the intent to gather samples of lunar soil and return to Earth. Bao claims that these are only “some” of the “exciting advances” the world will see from China’s developing space program in the years to come.

Although these announcements seem positive, it’s important to remember the driving force behind the space race of the Cold War. America touted its Gemini and Apollo missions as peaceful demonstrations of American ingenuity, but the program was always intended to help the United States secure the high ground in a potential conflict with the Soviet Union.  The rocket technology developed by NASA was born in America’s ballistic missile program—a program that saw significant advances through the incorporation of former Nazi scientists funneled into the U.S. through the covert Operation Paperclip run by the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency of the United States. Wernher von Braun, the scientist who developed the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany, played an integral role in our own rocket development, for instance.

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I don’t bring up the dark shadow looming behind the American heroism that permeated throughout both Gemini and Apollo to discredit American space efforts or to tarnish our memory of NASA’s heyday, but rather to demonstrate how strategically important a presence in space is for a nation’s defenses. We were willing to smuggle Nazi scientists into our own most top-secret facilities in the years following World War II because the United States feared a future with Soviet dominance of the ultimate high-ground. As NASA continues to lose funding, nations like China and India are more than happy to step in and establish a lasting presence in the sky above us.

That said, in the years since the Cold War, the American and Russian space programs have served as a bastion for cooperation, even as the two nations continue to spar with one another through proxy conflicts such as the ongoing fighting in Syria. It seems possible that cooperation toward a new space station could create the same type of good will with another of America’s global opponents—China—assuming, of course, that China wants such a relationship.

As an American, I shudder at the idea of continuing to piggyback on less powerful nations in order to keep our own space program alive. After years of hitching rides on Soviet-era rockets just to get our astronauts into orbit, I’d love to hear about plans (and accompanying funding) in the works for an American-led mission that could once again push the boundaries of space exploration and maybe even a little orbital dominance.

Although NASA has the Orion spacecraft in the works, it’s not currently slated to even carry a human crew until after the Chinese space station is already in orbit (although rumors have swirled about expediting that time-table under President Trump).

I suppose if I want to see an American flag on something new and impressive outside of our atmosphere, I’ll have to count on a private corporation to provide that for me, as SpaceX already intends to match one of NASA’s most incredible accomplishments to date in 2018, sending a crew farther into deep space than anyone has ventured before. Companies like SpaceX may not offer much in the way of defense, but at least we still have someone to cheer for.

Image courtesy of Bisbos/Popular Mechanics