The US and Russia are not the only major space nations now. BBC Future meets one of the European astronauts training with an emerging new power – China.

It was not what Matthias Maurer was expecting when he signed up for sea survival training with Chinese astronauts.

“It was so nice and relaxed,” says the German European Space Agency (Esa) astronaut. “I was floating there in the life raft, looking up at the sky – I only needed some music and it would have given me a real Hawaii holiday feeling.”

The exercise took place last year at a newly built training centre near the coastal city of Yantai, around an hour’s flight south-east of Beijing. For two weeks, Maurer and fellow Esa astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti, lived and worked alongside their Chinese counterparts.

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“We trained together, stayed in the same building as the Chinese astronauts, shared the same food and it was quite an intense experience,” says Maurer. “It felt like being part of a family – it was completely different to being in Houston, where I rent an apartment and see my colleagues only during a two or three-hour training session.”

Whereas other space agencies run special team-building exercises to help astronauts work together, the Chinese have adopted a more fundamental approach.

“The Chinese astronauts even spend their vacations together, they know each other perfectly well so they’re like brothers and sisters,” says Maurer. “When we lived there we felt so warm-heartedly accepted into their family.”

China’s Shenzhou spacecraft, which first carried an astronaut (or Taikonaut as they’re known) into orbit in 2003, is designed for a crew of three. It’s based on Russian Soyuz spacecraft technology and looks disconcertingly similar. But Soyuz has been flying astronauts for 50 years and is designed around a rocket that first saw service at the very the dawn of the space age. The Shenzhou is much more 21st Century.

“I was surprised by the dimensions,” says Maurer. “It has a larger diameter than the Soyuz capsule and is much higher – they’ve had a good look at the Russian hardware, they’ve learned what are the good parts and looked at what they can improve.”

There is so much room, we even had inflatable rubber boats, which we don’t have in the Soyuz – Matthias Maurer

If the space capsule splashes-down at sea for instance, the design of the Shenzhou makes the whole experience of swapping space suits for survival suits before clambering out of a bobbing space capsule much easier.

“There is so much room, we even had inflatable rubber boats, which we don’t have in the Soyuz,” he says. “With the Russian sea survival training you jump into the water, there’s no boat – it gets very chilly and it’s much, much harder.”

Maurer only recently qualified as an astronaut but, in his previous role at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany, began developing ties with the once secretive Chinese human space programme in 2012. He visited their Beijing training centre a year later to look at their facilities and simulators. And, in 2016, a Chinese astronaut took part in one of Esa’s regular caving expeditions.

Along with Cristoforetti and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, Maurer has also been learning Mandarin. “It’s good but it needs improvement,” he confesses. Although, he tells me, his name in Chinese translates as “Horse of Heaven”.

The United States won’t countenance co-operation with China in space – even on the International Space Station (ISS). But Esa is keeping its options open when it comes to getting its astronauts into orbit and beyond.

With China on track to launch its first full-sized space station by 2023, and with the country’s robotic mission launching later this year to the far side of the Moon, Esa’s decision to maintain ties with America and Russia while partnering with an emerging new space superpower would seem a canny move.

“Esa is already a cooperation between 23 member states, so we know what it takes to bring partners together,” says Maurer. “We speak many languages, we have this intercultural awareness and we’re the perfect glue to bring China into this big international space family.”

My impression is that any country in the world that wants to fly an astronaut can contact the Chinese through the UN and potentially get into space – Matthias Maurer

China recently signed an agreement with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs to open up its new space station to international research. This could also extend to flying astronauts, in a similar way to the Soviet Intercosmos programme of the 1970s and ‘80s, which saw astronauts from allied nations – including Mongolia, Cuba, Afghanistan and Syria – flying to Russian space stations.

“My impression is that any country in the world that wants to fly an astronaut can contact the Chinese through the UN and potentially get into space,” says Maurer. “It’s not only Europeans, but developing world countries that might not have an astronaut programme at the moment.”

Europe is ahead of the game and, in the coming months, Esa astronauts will begin training in the Chinese capsule, hoping one of them gets the co-pilot position on a future mission.

“In the Soyuz the left seat is the co-pilot, and so we went to China and said we need to negotiate hard to make sure we get that left-hand seat,” Maurer explains. “And they said ‘oh, okay, no problem’…and we thought that was too easy…until we realised [in the Shenzhou] the right-hand seat is the co-pilot’s.”

Maurer hopes to be make his first spaceflight to the ISS in 2020. After that he will be well-positioned to become one of the first foreign astronauts to fly alongside Taikonauts to the Chinese station in around 2023.

Partly because of the diplomatic policies of current US administration, Nasa is unlikely to begin openly cooperating with the Chinese space programme any time soon. In the longer term, however, with America and China both contemplating a return to the Moon and, ultimately, human exploration of Mars, the question is whether the space powers will continue as rivals or whether they will ultimately need to work together).

“Once we look beyond Earth orbit to the Moon or Mars, we need all the partners we can find on this planet because it gets more difficult, more expensive and we need the best technology,” says Maurer. “We are aiming to bring the Chinese into the family and a future lunar research station – the more we have in the family, the better we will become.”

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