‘Space Dream’: China astronauts blast off for new space station

Andrew Cummings
June 17, 2021

China will send three men into orbit on Thursday in its first crewed mission in almost five years, part of an ambitious plan to complete a space station by the end of next year.

The 22-ton Tianhe module was launched atop a Long March-2F carrier rocket from China's Gobi Desert on Thursday, with astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo onboard.

Over the next year and a half, another 11 missions are planned to complete the construction of Tiangong in orbit.

Three Chinese astronauts have docked at China's space station core module, named Tianhe, for the first time.

The three-month stay for Nie, Liu and Tang will be the longest for any Chinese astronauts, and one focus will be seeing how the men handle their relatively long time in orbit.

Since 2003, China has launched six crewed missions and sent 11 astronauts into space, including Zhai Zhigang, who carried out China's first spacewalk ever on the 2008 Shenzhou mission. It is also the first in almost five years after the country's last manned mission in 2016. Pictures showed them busy at work unpacking equipment.

The module has separate living spaces for each of them.

Hao Chun, director of the China Manned Space Agency, said in April that more than 20 cabinets aboard the space station will be reserved for scientific instruments designed in accordance with worldwide standards, adding that these will be available for global cooperation.

"So the astronauts can have a good rest in space which should make them less exhausted", Gao said.

China is not a participant in the International Space Station, largely as a result of US objections to the Chinese programs secrecy and close military ties.

The ISS may be decommissioned in 2024 if the project does not receive new funding, and China could end up being the operator of the only space station in Earth's orbit.

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.

The China Manned Space Agency and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs have jointly issued a statement inviting scientists from around the world to submit their research proposals for an opportunity to conduct their own experiments aboard the Chinese space station. China began construction of the station in April with the launch of Tianhe, the first and largest of three modules. 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.

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