China has sent three astronauts to work on its future space station in its first crewed space mission in nearly five years, a key step in the country’s expanding space program.
The spacecraft Shenzhen-12 blasted off via a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert at 9:22 a.m. on Thursday.
The three men on board, Nie Haisheng, 56, Liu Boming, 54, and Tang Hongbo, 45, are expected to spend three months in space, the longest crewed mission since China sent its first astronaut to space in 2003. Nie and Liu have been to space in the past, while Tang is on his first orbital trip.
The mission is the first of four crewed space missions scheduled before China completes constructing its space station in 2022, Ji Qiming, assistant director at the China Manned Space Agency, said at a press briefing on Wednesday.
China launched the core module of its future space station, known as Tianhe, or Harmony of the Heavens, in April, and a cargo spacecraft, Tianzhou-2, docked with the core module after it was sent to space in March.
The Shenzhen, or Divine Vessel, spacecraft will dock with the orbiting modules. Astronauts are going to conduct tests on the space station, such as operating the robotic arms and managing waste, take a spacewalk on two occasions, and carry out a series of scientific experiments.
At the press briefing, Ji said the Tianhe core module has three bedrooms and one bathroom for the astronauts. More than 120 types of space food have also been prepared for their three-month stay.
Beijing has vowed to make China a strong power in space, and the future space station will give the country an edge in rivaling Washington. In recent months, China has also completed its first uncrewed Mars landing and sent a probe to collect lunar samples from the moon.
The U.S. space program has been banned by Congress from collaborating with China since 2011, due to concerns about national security and human rights. Chinese astronauts were also barred from entering the International Space Station.
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