Under bright morning skies, China on Thursday launched its first manned space mission in five years by sending three science-trained military pilots to a new orbital station where they are expected to arrive by mid-afternoon.
The three crew members, already in their space suits, were seen off by the commander of China’s manned space program, other uniformed personnel and a crowd of children waving flowers and flags and singing patriotic songs. The three said goodbye and boarded the elevator that took them to their capsule at the Jiuquan launch center in northwest China.
They are traveling in the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft powered by a Long March-2F Y12 rocket, which lifted off shortly after the scheduled time, 9:22 a.m., with near-perfect visibility at the launch center located on the edge of the Gobi Desert.
Two veteran astronauts and one first-time spacewalker are headed to the Tianhe station, Celestial Harmony in Chinese, where they will spend three months conducting experiments, testing equipment and preparing the outpost for expansion before it receives two additional modules next year.
The rocket separated from its boosters about two minutes into the flight, which was followed by the junction surrounding the Shenzhou-12 at the top of the rocket. After about 10 minutes, the capsule separated from the upper section and extended its solar panels shortly after entering orbit.
Over the next few hours, about half a dozen adjustments will be made to align the capsule for docking at the Tianhe around 4 p.m. (0800 GMT), the mission’s deputy chief designer, Gao Xu, told state television station CCTV.
The travel time was reduced from the two days needed to reach previous experimental space stations as a result of a host of advances and innovations, Gao added.
Among the improvements is an increase in automated and remotely controlled systems that should significantly ease the strain on astronauts, he said.
The mission brings to 14 the number of astronauts put into orbit by Beijing since its first manned mission in 2003. China is the third country to make it solo after the former Soviet Union and the United States. Of those, two were women and although the first crew of the orbital outpost will be all-male, it is expected that the future will also host women.
The mission is the third of 11 planned for next year to incorporate more sections to the station, send crew members and supplies. Three more astronauts and a supply capsule will arrive in three months.
China does not participate in the International Space Station, largely because of U.S. objections to the secrecy of Beijing’s space programs and its close ties to the military. However, China has increased its cooperation with Russia and other countries, and its outpost could continue to operate longer than the ISS, which is reaching the end of its useful life.
Last month, China landed a probe with a robot rover, Zhurong, on Mars, and earlier took the same team to the lesser-known face of the Moon, from where it brought back to Earth the first lunar samples since the 1970s.
After Tianhe’s launch in April, the rocket that carried it into space returned to Earth in an uncontrolled manner, prompting criticism that China rejected. Normally, discarded rocket modules re-enter the atmosphere shortly after liftoff to fall back into the water, and do not enter orbit.
The rocket used Thursday is different, and the returning parts are expected to burn up long before they can generate danger, said Ji Qiming, deputy director of China’s Manned Spaceflight Agency.