China’s state rocket company unveils rendering of a Starship look-alike

Screenshot of a presentation from China's main state-owned rocket manufacturer, CALT.
Enlarge / Screenshot of a presentation from China’s main state-owned rocket manufacturer, CALT.

This weekend, China celebrated its sixth “National Space Day” in Nanjing, a capital city in one of the country’s eastern provinces. As part of the festivities, Chinese space officials highlighted the Chang’e-5 mission’s recent return of lunar samples, some of which were on display, and announced the name of China’s first Mars rover, Zhurong, which is scheduled to land on the red planet in May.

A booth operated by China’s main state-owned rocket manufacturer, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, also spotlighted the potential for suborbital point-to-point transportation. This is a concept in which a vehicle launches from Earth, flies into suborbital space, and touches down halfway around the world in less than an hour.

The promotional video, captured and shared on the Chinese social network Weibo, shows two different concepts for achieving suborbital passenger flights about two decades from now. What is interesting about the video (which I’ve mirrored on YouTube) is that the first concept looks strikingly like SpaceX’s Starship vehicle. It shows a large vehicle capable of vertical takeoff and vertical landing.

The concept is notable not only for its appearance to Starship—the vehicle’s exterior is shiny, like the stainless steel structure of Starship, and the first and second stages are similarly seamless—but in its function as well. Although Starship has primarily been promoted as a vehicle to take humans to the Moon and Mars, SpaceX has also developed a point-to-point concept.

SpaceX first unveiled this “Earth to Earth” concept in September 2017. A video released at the time showed a suborbital flight time on Starship from New York City to Shanghai of just 39 minutes and advertised the capability of “anywhere on Earth in less than an hour.”

The second point-to-point concept in the Chinese video showed a horizontal takeoff, horizontal landing vehicle that used some sort of electromagnetic catapult.

Both of these systems are part of China’s previously announced plans to develop global point-to-point transportation by 2045. Under the country’s long-term planning goals, Chinese industry would begin delivering cargo around the globe via suborbital flight by 2035 and passengers by 2045.

This would not be the first time that the Chinese space program has drawn inspiration from SpaceX. The country tracked SpaceX from the very beginning, particularly with an interest in SpaceX’s plans to reuse rocket first stages. During the company’s very first launch in 2006, as reported in the book Liftoff, a Chinese spy boat was in the small patch of ocean where the Falcon 1 rocket’s first stage was due to reenter.

More recently, in 2019, the Chinese Long March 2C rocket tested “grid fins” like those used by the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket to steer itself through the atmosphere during the reentry process. China intends to develop the Long March 8 rocket to land on a sea platform like the Falcon 9 booster did, and semi-private Chinese firms such as LinkSpace and Galactic Energy appear to be mimicking SpaceX launch technology.

It’s not clear whether China would also develop a Starship-like vehicle for interplanetary transport. For now, the country plans to develop a more conventional super heavy lifter known as the Long March 9 rocket, as well as a triple-core booster that resembles SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.