Three Chinese astronauts arrived at China’s space station on Wednesday (Nov. 30) for the first orbiting crew rotation in Chinese space history, kicking off the operation of the second manned outpost in low Earth orbit after the International Space Station led by The NASA.
The Shenzhou-15 spacecraft, or “divine ship”, and its three passengers lifted off atop a Long March-2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center at 11:08 p.m. (1508 GMT) on Tuesday in temperatures below zero in the Gobi. Desert in northwest China, according to state television.
Shenzhou-15 was the last of 11 missions, including three previous crewed missions, needed to assemble the “Heavenly Palace,” as the multi-module station is known in Chinese. The first mission was launched in April 2021.
The spacecraft docked at the station more than six hours after launch, and the three Shenzhou-15 astronauts were warmly welcomed by the previous Shenzhou crew from whom they were taking over.
The Shenzhou-14 crew, which arrived in early June, will return to Earth after a week-long transfer that will establish the station’s capacity to temporarily accommodate six astronauts, another record for China’s space program.
The Shenzhou-15 mission offered the nation a rare moment of celebration, at a time of widespread dissatisfaction with China’s zero-COVID policies, while its economy cools amid uncertainties at home and abroad.
“Long live the homeland!” many Chinese netizens wrote on social media.
The “Heavenly Palace” was the culmination of nearly two decades of Chinese crewed missions in space. China’s human spaceflight began in 2003 when a former fighter pilot, Yang Liwei, was sent into orbit in a small bronze-colored capsule, the Shenzhou-5, and became the first Chinese man in the space and an instant hero acclaimed by millions back home.
The space station was also an emblem of China’s growing influence and confidence in its space endeavors and a challenger to the United States in the field, after being isolated from the NASA-led ISS and banned by the American law of any collaboration, direct or indirect, with the American space agency.
Fei Junlong, 57, led the Shenzhou-15 mission and was among the first group of Chinese astronaut trainees in the late 1990s. His previous visit to space was 17 years ago as commander of the second China’s crewed spaceflight.
Fei was accompanied by Deng Qingming, 56, who had trained for 24 years as an astronaut but had never been chosen for a mission until Shenzhou-15. They were joined by former Air Force pilot Zhang Lu, 46, also a space newbie.
Astronauts will live and work on the T-shaped space outpost for six months.
The next group of “taikonauts”, from the Chinese word for space, who will board the station in 2023 will be chosen from among the third generation of astronauts with a scientific background. The first and second batches of astronauts in the 1990s-2000s were all former Air Force pilots.
China has started the selection process for the fourth batch, seeking candidates with PhDs in disciplines ranging from biology, physics and chemistry to biomedical engineering and astronomy.
The selection process was also opened for the first time to applicants from Hong Kong and Macau.
During the operation of the space station over the next decade, China is expected to launch two crewed missions to the orbiting outpost each year.
Resident astronauts are expected to conduct more than 1,000 science experiments, ranging from studying the adaptation of plants in space to the behavior of fluids in microgravity.
Although still in its infancy compared to NASA’s technologies and experience, China’s space program has come a long way since the mid-20th century, when the country’s late leader, Mao Zedong, lamented that China cannot even launch a potato into orbit.
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