JIUQUAN, China — Under bright-blue morning skies, China launched its first crewed space mission in five years Thursday, sending three science-minded military pilots rocketing to a new orbiting station they’re expected to reach around midafternoon.
The astronauts, already wearing their spacesuits, were seen off by space officials, other uniformed military personnel and a crowd of children waving flowers and flags and singing patriotic songs. The three gave final waves to a crowd of people waving flags, then entered the elevator to take them to the spaceship at the Jiuquan launch center in northwestern China.
The astronauts are traveling in the Shenzhou-12 spaceship launched by a Long March-2F Y12 rocket that blasted off shortly after the target time of 9:22 a.m. (0122 GMT) with near-perfect visibility at the launch center on the edge of the Gobi Desert.
The two veteran astronauts and a newcomer making his first space flight are scheduled to stay three months in the Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, conducting experiments, testing equipment and preparing the station for expansion before two laboratory modules are launched next year.
The rocket dropped its boosters about two minutes into the flight followed by the coiling surrounding Shenzhou-12 at the top of the rocket. After about 10 minutes it separated from the rocket’s upper section, extended its solar panels and shortly afterward entered orbit.
About a half-dozen adjustments will take place over the next four to six hours to line up the spaceship for docking with the Tianhe at about 4 p.m. (0800 GMT), the mission’s deputy chief designer, Gao Xu, told state broadcaster CCTV.
The travel time is down from the two days it took to reach China’s earlier experimental space stations, a result of a “great many breakthroughs and innovations” Gao said.
“So the astronauts can a have a good rest in the space which should make them less tired,” Gao said.
Other improvements include an increase in the number of automated and remote-controlled systems that should “significantly lessen the pressure on the astronauts,” Gao said.
The mission brings to 14 the number of astronauts China has launched into space since its first crewed mission in 2003, becoming only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to do so on its own. Two astronauts on those past missions were women, and while this first station crew is all male, women are expected to be part of future station crews.
The mission is the third of 11 planned through next year to add the additional sections to the station and send up crews and supplies. A fresh three-member crew and a cargo ship with supplies will be sent in three months.
China is not a participant in the International Space Station, largely as a result of U.S. objections to the Chinese programs secrecy and close military ties. However, China has been stepping up cooperation with Russia and a host of other countries, and its station may continue operating beyond the International Space Station, which is reaching the end of its functional life.
China landed a probe on Mars last month that carried a rover, the Zhurong, and earlier landed a probe and rover on the moon’s less explored far side and brought back the first lunar samples by any country’s space program since the 1970s.
After the Tianhe was launched in April, the rocket that carried it into space made an uncontrolled reentry to Earth, though China dismissed criticism of the potential safety hazard. Usually, discarded rocket stages reenter the atmosphere soon after liftoff, normally over water, and don’t go into orbit.
The rocket used Thursday is of a different type and the components that will reenter are expected to burn up long before they could be a danger, said Ji Qiming, assistant director of the China Manned Space Agency.
Purpose of Chinese Space Mission
The three-member crew is due to stay for three months in the station’s main living module, named Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony. They will be carrying out science experiments and maintenance, space walks and preparing the facility to receive two additional modules next year.
While China concedes it arrived late at the space station game, it says its facility is cutting-edge. It could also outlast the International Space Station, which is nearing the end of its functional lifespan.
The launch Thursday also revives China’s crewed space program after a five-year hiatus. With Thursday’s launch, China has now sent 14 astronauts into space since it first achieved the feat in 2003, becoming the third country after the former Soviet Union and the U.S. to do so.
WHY IS CHINA BUILDING THE STATION?
As the Chinese economy was beginning to gather steam in the early 1990s, China formulated a plan for space exploration, which it has carried out at a steady, cautious cadence. While China has been barred from participation in the International Space Station, mainly over U.S. objections to the Chinese program’s secretive nature and close military connections, it’s likely the country would have built its own station anyway as it sought the status of a great space power.
At a news conference Wednesday, China Manned Space Agency Assistant Director Ji Qiming told reporters at the Jiuquan launch center that the construction and operation of the space station will raise China’s technologies and “accumulate experience for all the people.”
The space program is part of an overall drive to put China on track for even more ambitious missions and provide opportunities for cooperation with Russia and other, mostly European, countries along with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.
POLITICS AND SECURITY
China’s space program has been a massive source of national pride, embodying its rise from poverty to the world’s second-largest economy over the past four decades. That has helped shore up the power of the Communist Party, whose authoritarian rule and strict limits on political activity have been tolerated by most Chinese as long as the economy is growing.
President and head of the party Xi Jinping has associated himself closely with that success, and Ji in his remarks cited Xi as setting the updated agenda for China’s rise to prominence in space. The first mission to the station also coincides with the celebration of the party centenary next month, an important political milestone.
At the same time, China is modernizing its military at a rapid pace, raising concerns from neighbors, the U.S. and its NATO allies. While China espouses the peaceful development of space on the basis of equality and mutual respect, many recall that China in January 2007 sent a ballistic missile into space to destroy an inactive weather satellite, creating a debris field that continues to be a threat.
WHO ARE THE ASTRONAUTS?
Mission commander Nie Haisheng, 56, and fellow astronauts Liu Boming, 54, and Tang Hongbo, 45, are former People’s Liberation Army Air Force pilots with graduate degrees and strong scientific backgrounds. All Chinese astronauts so far have been recruited from the military, underscoring its close ties to the space program.
For Nie, it is his third trip to space, and for Liu, his second following a mission in 2008 that included China’s first space walk. Tang, who was recruited as one of the second batch of candidates in 2010, is flying in space for the first time.
Future missions to the station will include women, according to officials, with stays extended to as long as six months and as many as six astronauts on the station at a time during crew changeovers. With China stepping up international cooperation and exchanges, it’s only a matter of time before foreign astronauts join the Chinese colleagues on missions to the station, Ji told reporters Wednesday.
WHAT ELSE IS CHINA DOING IN SPACE?
Along with its crewed space program, China has been moving boldly into exploration of the solar system with robotic space ships. It landed a probe on Mars last month that carried a rover, the Zhurong, which is conducting a range of surveys, looking particularly for frozen water that could provide clues as to whether the red plant once supported life.
Earlier, China landed a probe and rover on the moon’s less explored far side, joining the Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, rover that was part of an earlier lunar exploration mission. China also brought back the first lunar samples by any country’s space program since the 1970s and officials say they want to send Chinese astronauts to the moon and eventually build a research base there.