China launched three astronauts into orbit in what will be the country’s first crewed mission in five years.
The Shenzhou-12 spacecraft, which launched atop a Long March-2F rocket, carried astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo to an under-construction space station.
The launch was scheduled at 9:22 a.m. local time (9:22 p.m. ET on Wednesday) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, which is located about 900 miles west of Beijing.
China’s First Space Station Crew Will Be Led By A Veteran
Two seasoned astronauts are among the first three-man crew for China’s first space station.
At roughly 9.22 a.m., the Long March 2F rocket transported them to the Tianhe module – the first segment of the Tiangong space station – which launched from the Jiuquan satellite launch center in the Gobi Desert. According to the China Manned Space Engineering Office, the rocket’s propellant refueling began on Wednesday morning.
The mission is led by Commander Nie Haisheng, who will set a record as China’s oldest astronaut in space at the age of 56, stated Ji Qiming, assistant director, at a morning press conference. This will be his third mission into space. American John Glenn, best known for orbiting the Earth in 1962, held the record for the oldest person in space when he flew in the space shuttle in 1998 at the age of 77.
Nie, who leads the People’s Liberation Army’s Astronaut Brigade, was chosen as one of China’s first 14 astronauts in 1997 and participated in the Shenzhou-6 and Shenzhou-10 missions in 2005 and 2013, respectively. He will be joined by Liu Boming, 54, a member of the 1997 cohort who participated in the 2008 Shenzhou-7 mission.
Tang Hongbo, 45, will be the crew’s third member and will be making his first space flight.
The “Divine Vessel”
The Shenzhou-12, which means “divine vessel” in Chinese, will be China’s first manned space voyage in nearly five years, taking place less than two weeks before the Communist Party’s centennial celebrations on July 1. It’s the third of 11 planned building missions for the space station, which should be finished by 2022. Four of the flights will be crewed, with up to 12 astronauts on board.
The crew will stay on Tianhe for three months, shattering China’s previous record of 30 days in space set by astronauts Chen Dong and Jing Haipeng in 2016. Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov holds the world record for the longest period spent continuously in space by a human, having spent more than 14 months – 437 days and 18 hours – on the Mir space station in 1994 to 1995.
The trio will make two space walks during their stay in orbit, according to Ji of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, to assemble and test their suits and tools, as well as install panoramic cameras and expanded pump sets.
They are expected to test and operate the core cabin, life support system, robotic arm, and waste management system while monitoring their own health and making sure they stay healthy and active. In the orbiting lab, the crew will also conduct a series of space research experiments.
Nine projects from 17 countries have been chosen to participate in the mission’s experiments. Ji stated that the space station will be a “universal space laboratory” and that China would cooperate with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) to announce a second round of cooperation prospects.
However, when he listed the countries and international organizations that have worked with China’s manned space program, he left out the United States. In addition to UNOOSA, they include Russia, Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, and the European Space Agency (ESA).
In September and October, the Tianzhou-3 cargo spacecraft and the Shenzhou-13 crewed mission are slated to launch, respectively. Next year, the modules Wentian and Mengtian will be launched to host experiments in astronomy, space medicine, space biology, biotechnology, microgravity fluid physics, microgravity combustion, and space technologies.
The Chinese space station will be operational for at least ten years. Two years after landing its first spacecraft on the far side of the moon, China became the second country to put a functional rover on Mars in May.