China has launched its first crewed mission in five years, successfully sending three astronauts to its new Tianhe space station, CNBC has reported. Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo will be the first three astronauts to board the station and will spend three months there testing systems and doing spacewalks. The three astronauts rode in a Shenzhou-12 spacecraft atop a Long March 2F rocket that launched around 9:22 AM China time from the Juiquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. The mission was declared a “complete success” at 9:43 AM.
The crew will set up quarters in the core module, launched in April 2021 amid controversy over the Long March 5b rocket’s reentry. The main goal of the crew is to bring the 24 ton module online. “We need to set up our new home in space and test a series of new technologies,” said commander Nie Haisheng. “So, the mission is tough and challenging. I believe with the three of us working closely together, doing thorough and accurate operations, we can overcome our challenges.”
The mission is the first of 11 planned to Tianhe during the space station’s construction phase. China will send another two modules and several more crewed missions in an effort to complete the station by the 2022 deadline. China was excluded from the US-led International Space Station, but has said that it may allow foreign involvement in its own station.
China has accelerated its space program over the last few years. It recently landed a lunar-sampling robot on the Moon and sent it back to Earth, then landed a rover on Mars earlier this year. Down the road, China plans to land astronauts on the Moon within the next decade in partnership with Russia.