China sent two astronauts into space on Monday to dock with an orbiting space lab, marking a crucial step toward the country’s ambition to build and operate its first space station by 2022.
The launch of the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft, witnessed by a group of foreign and domestic media from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in western Gansu province, is Beijing’s third mission to space this year.
At about 7:30 a.m. local time, mission commander and third-time visitor to space Jing Haipeng blasted off with novice astronaut Chen Dong. Both were selected from a shortlisted group of 20 and will be tasked with testing equipment and themselves to ensure China is ready for long-term stays outside Earth. Over 100 different types of space food will be consumed while a range of technologies from exercise bicycles to broadband links will be used throughout the mission.
General Zhang Youxia declared the launch “a complete success” at a press conference. The space agency said its equipment was working properly and is in good condition for the mission’s requirements.
The world’s second-largest economy has spent billions in the past decade to compete in a space race with the U.S. and Russia, as well as Asian rivals India and Japan, with ambitious plans eventually to send an astronaut to the moon by about 2025 and to land an unmanned vehicle on Mars.
President Xi Jinping, in a congratulatory note read at the press conference, called the launch a milestone in China’s work on manned space mission. “We still have a long way to go” to accomplish our goals of discovering the secrets of space and making China strong in space exploration, the note said
The crew on the Shenzhou-11 is expected to spend 33 days in space, 30 of which will be spent in the Tiangong-2 space lab, a simpler version of a planned space station, which was launched last month. China Manned Space Agency Deputy Director Wu Gang said the latest mission will provide valuable experience to further develop the country’s space-station plans.
But the launch is also a point of national pride with Wu declaring the entire mission was planned and executed by Chinese staff. During a tightly-managed press conference with the astronauts themselves less than a day before the launch, both closed with emphatic declarations of “see you in Beijing.”
If China is able to reach its goal, the space station would be only the second in service, after the International Space Station, a multinational project launched in 1998, which is slated to be retired in 2024. Another space station, the Mir, was in low Earth orbit from 1986 to 2001, and was operated by the Soviet Union, later Russia.
The Chinese started development work on spacecraft docking devices in the mid-1990s, and its first astronaut ventured into space in 2003. China’s space science efforts accelerated from that point along with the country’s rapid economic growth.
The country successfully completed its first docking mission in 2011, a moment that was broadcast live on national TV and observed by then-Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.
At a seminar marking the 60th anniversary of China’s space program recently, Chinese Vice Premier Ma Kai said the country should promote the development of space science and technology to help modernize its national defense as well as social and economic development.
— With assistance by Keith Zhai, and David Ramli