China Set to Send First Crew to New Space Station Thursday

Chinese astronauts, from left, Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng, and Liu Boming wave at a press conference at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center ahead of the Shenzhou-12 launch from Jiuquan in northwestern China, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. Photo: Ng Han Guan / AP

JIUQUAN, China (AP) — China is set to send the first three crew members to its new space station Thursday morning and envisions growing international cooperation on the ambitious project, a space agency official said Wednesday.

Two of the astronauts flew in previous missions while the third is going to space for the first time, China Manned Space Agency Assistant Director Ji Qiming told reporters at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China.

“Exploring the vast universe, developing space activities building a powerful space nation is our unremitting space dream,” Ji said.

“The construction and operation of China’s space station will raise our technologies and accumulate experience for all the people. It is a positive contribution by China for human exploration of the universe, peaceful utilization of outer space and push forward the building of a community of shared future for mankind,” he said.

Thursday’s launch begins the first crewed space mission in five years for an increasingly ambitious space program. China has sent 11 astronauts into space since becoming the third country to so so on its own in 2003 and has sent orbiters and rovers to the moon and Mars.

The astronauts will be traveling in the Shenzhou-12 spaceship launched by a Long March-2F Y12 rocket set to blast off at 9:22 a.m. (0122 GMT).

They will spend three months living on the orbiting Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, station, conducting spacewalks, maintenance work and science experiments. The first Tianhe crew are men but women will be part of future crews, officials have said.

The mission is the third of 11 planned through next year to add sections to the station and send up crews and supplies. The main living section of the station was launched in April and the other two modules are due to be launched next year.

Beijing doesn’t participate in the International Space Station, largely due to U.S. concerns over the Chinese program’s secrecy and its military connections. Despite that, foreign science missions and possibly foreign astronauts are expected to visit the Chinese station in future.

“Outer space is the common wealth of people all over the world, and exploring the universe is the shared cause of all mankind,” Ji said.

“We are willing to carry out international cooperation and exchanges with all countries and regions worldwide that are committed to the peaceful use of outer space,” Ji said, adding that existing cooperation with countries including Russia, Italy and Germany along with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs was being expanded.

“I believe that in the near future, when the Chinese space station is complete, we will see Chinese and foreign astronauts taking on joint missions to the Chinese space station,” Ji said.

Ji conceded the construction of the Chinese station had come “relatively late” but said that was also an advantage in that it allowed China to use the latest technologies and concepts, particularly in the areas of reliability and safety.

The three astronauts later met with reporters from inside a germ-free glassed-in room, saying they had complete confidence in the mission, which carries special political with the ruling Communist Party preparing to celebrate its centenary next month.

“The first task is to arrange our home in the core module then get started on a whole range of diagnostic tests on crucial technology,” said Nie Haisheng, the most senior of the three who is making his third trip to space.

Liu Boming, whose one previous flight in 2011 included China’s first spacewalk, said there would multiple such activities over the course of the three months.

Tang Hongbo, who is making his first flight since being selected among the second batch of astronauts in 2010, said he had been training virtually non-stop for years. “There is pressure,” Tang said. “But where there is pressure there is motivation and … I have confidence in myself and have confidence in our team.”

The mission builds on experience China gained from operating two experimental space stations earlier. It also landed a probe on Mars last month that carried a rover, the Zhurong, and earlier landed a probe and rover on the moon and brought back the first lunar samples by any country’s space program since the 1970s.

Once completed, the Tianhe will allow for stays of up to six months, similar to the much larger International Space Station.

Each astronaut will have their own living area and a stationary bike and other exercise equipment will allow them to counter some of the effects of weightlessness. They’ll also be able to bring personal items on the mission to remind them of home and stave off boredom while not working, Nie said.

The Chinese station reportedly is intended to be used for 15 years and may outlast ISS, which is nearing the end of its functional lifespan.

The launch of Tianhe was considered a success although China was criticized for allowing the uncontrolled reentry to Earth of part of the rocket that carried it into space. Usually, discarded rocket stages reenter the atmosphere soon after liftoff, normally over water, and don’t go into orbit.

Story: Sam McNeil