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European Space Agency says it has no plans to send astronauts to China’s Tiangong space station

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 25/01/2023 Ling Xin
  • The comments by the ESA's director general are the first indication it is no longer interested in working with China on human space exploration
  • Josef Aschbacher says the 22 member states are focusing on their commitments to the International Space Station instead

A top official with the European Space Agency said it had no plans to send European astronauts to the newly completed Chinese space station, making it clear for the first time that the agency is no longer committed to working with China in human space flight in the near future.

"We are very busy supporting and ensuring our commitments and activities on the International Space Station," ESA director general Josef Aschbacher told a press conference in Paris on Monday.

"We have neither the budgetary nor political greenlight or intention to engage in a second space station - that is, participating in the Chinese Space Station," he said in response to an online question about whether ESA was still considering flying astronauts to Tiangong.

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Tiangong, which China finished building late last year in low-earth orbit, was a key field of cooperation when ESA and China Manned Space Agency signed an agreement in 2014 to bring their partnership to a new level.

In 2017, ESA sent two astronauts, Samantha Cristoforetti and Matthias Maurer, for a nine-day joint training exercise with Chinese astronauts in the coastal city of Yantai.

China prepares for mission to space station before landmark crew handover

"The ultimate goal is for ESA to establish a long term cooperation with China and ESA astronauts to fly on China's space station," the agency said that year.

"This is unfortunate news, but not totally unexpected. In the past few years, Covid and the situation in Ukraine have made our collaboration with European colleagues increasingly difficult," said a Beijing-based space scientist who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Aschbacher's comments came as a record-breaking budget of nearly Euro17 billion (US$17.6 billion) was recently approved by the 22 member states of ESA to support the agency's activities over the next three years.

About 5 per cent of the money will go to the International Space Station, of which ESA has been a member since the 1980s and is responsible for 8.3 per cent of its annual cost.

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It will also help European scientists build a new landing platform for their ExoMars rover, which they had developed with Russia to look for signs of past life on Mars but got suspended due to the Ukraine war.

In a video posted by a Chinese space fan group on Weibo last month, Cristoforetti was asked if she would like to visit the Chinese Space Station one day if she had the chance to.

"We made efforts ... but you know, things aren't as easy as they used to be," said Cristoforetti, who has been studying Mandarin and created a sensation among Chinese fans when she quoted a classical Chinese poem on Twitter to share her joy flying over the Earth from the International Space Station.

China launches Mengtian module to finish Tiangong space station

"Personally I'd definitely be happy to visit Tiangong, maybe when the policies relax again," she said.

In November, officials of the China Space Agency said that foreign astronauts are always welcome to enter Tiangong, and China was making active preparations for training international astronauts.

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (, the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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