China launched the first three crew members on a mission to its new space station Thursday in its first crewed mission in five years.
The astronauts, already wearing their spacesuits, were seen off by the commander of China’s manned space program, other uniformed military personnel and a crowd of children waving flowers and flags and singing patriotic songs. The three gave final waves to a crowd of people waving flags as the entered the elevator to take them to the spaceship at the Jiuquan launch center in northwestern China.
The astronauts are traveling in the Shenzhou-12 spaceship launched by a Long March-2F Y12 rocket that blasted off shortly after the target time of 9:22 a.m. (0122 GMT) heading into the bright-blue skies with near-perfect visibility at the launch center on the edge of the Gobi Desert.
The two veteran astronauts and a newcomer making his first space flight are heading to the Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, station for a three-month stay in its main living compartment where they will carry out experiments, test equipment, conduct maintenance and prepare the station for receiving two additional modules next year.
The rocket dropped its boosters about two minutes into the flight followed by the coiling surrounding Shenzhou-12 at the top of the rocket. After about 10 minutes it separated from the rocket’s upper section and extended its solar panels.
After the Tianhe was launched in April, the rocket that carried it into space made an uncontrolled reentry to Earth, though China dismissed criticism. 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.
The mission brings to 14 the number of Chinese astronauts traveling into space since China launched its first crewed mission in 2003, becoming only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to do so on its own.
The mission is the third of 11 planned through next year to add the additional sections to the station and send up crews and supplies. A fresh three-member crew and a cargo ship with supplies will be sent in three months.
China is not a participant in the International Space Station, largely as a result of U.S. objections to the Chinese programs secrecy and close military ties. However, China has been stepping up cooperation with Russia and a host of other countries, and its station may remain in space beyond the International Space Station, which is reaching the end of its functional life.
The mission builds on experience China gained from earlier operating two experimental space stations. 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.