China Launches 3 Astronauts Toward New Space Station

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The crew, the first to launch since 2016, will begin what is expected to be a continuous Chinese presence in Earth’s orbit for the next decade.

China Launches 3 Astronauts Toward New Space Station
China carried three astronauts to orbit on Thursday atop a Long March 2F rocket.Credit...Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

There will soon be two places in orbit where astronauts live.

On a clear, sunny Thursday morning in the Gobi Desert, China launched three astronauts to rendezvous with the country’s nascent space station.

They waved to cameras in their capsule as their trip to space began. Twenty-one minutes into the mission, the director of the launch center, Zhang Zhifen, announced that it was “a complete success.”

If all now goes according to plan, they will rendezvous with China’s nascent space station later in the day, beginning what is planned to be a continuous Chinese presence in Earth’s orbit for at least the next decade.

The space station, called Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace, joins the International Space Station, the project led by the United States and Russia that has been steadily occupied for more than two decades.

Thursday’s launch is the third of 11 missions planned to complete construction of China’s first long-term outpost in space before the end of next year.

In China, the construction of the space station has been treated with unusually public fanfare, a reflection of growing confidence by the country’s leadership in its space missions, which have achieved a number of major successes in recent months.

The launch of China’s space station comes at a time when Russia and the United States are squabbling over the future of the International Space Station, and as China and Russia are growing closer in space cooperation.

The astronauts soared into space aboard Shenzhou-12, a spacecraft that will dock to the two modules launched earlier. It will effectively become another piece of the space station, which is orbiting 242 miles, or 390 kilometers, above Earth. (The International Space Station is slightly higher at 248 miles.)

The Shenzhou, modeled on the Soviet-era Soyuz spacecraft, though larger, consists of three modules, including a re-entry craft that will bring the astronauts back to Earth. In addition to the crew, it is carrying basic supplies for a long-term stay, including 120 different meals with “balanced nutrition, rich variety, good flavor and a long shelf life,” according to Ji Qiming, an assistant to the director of the China Manned Space Agency.

A related spacecraft, Shenzhou-5, carried the first Chinese astronaut to space in 2003, making China the only country besides the United States and the Soviet Union and, its successor, Russia, to complete the feat independently. China has since carried out five more crewed flights into orbit, the last in 2016.

ImageChina Launches 3 Astronauts Toward New Space Station
From left, Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming before they boarded the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft that will take them to China’s space station module in orbit.Credit...Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The commander of the mission is Nie Haisheng, 56. He is a former fighter pilot and veteran of two previous Shenzhou missions, in 2005 and 2013.

Liu Boming, 54, is another space veteran, having been part of the mission in 2008 that included China’s first spacewalk. That feat was accomplished by another astronaut, Zhai Zhigang, but Mr. Liu briefly emerged from a portal to become the second Chinese astronaut to touch space.

The third crew member is Tang Hongbo, 45. He has twice been a backup crew member for Shenzhou missions but is making his first trip into space. He noted that his training had now lasted 11 years. “There is pressure for sure,” he said, “but I firmly believe that pressure is motivation.”

The China Academy of Space Technology told The Global Times, a state newspaper, that the trip to the orbital module would take about 6.5 hours. When it arrives on Thursday evening, the spacecraft will autonomously dock with the station.

That’s similar to the time of a flight in May of a cargo vessel called Tianzhou, which docked with the core module about eight hours after it launched. It carried several tons of supplies to equip and sustain the station, which will have three bedrooms, a bathroom, and places for the astronauts to eat and exercise.

A display of photos of Chinese astronauts at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.Credit...Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The crew of Shenzhou-12 is scheduled to spend the next three months in orbit. After that a second crew of three astronauts will replace them.

The station remains under construction, so the astronauts’ main tasks will effectively be to continue to build it, installing equipment like cameras and testing various functions, including life support and waste management. They are scheduled to conduct two spacewalks as part of that effort.

Mr. Nie, the commander, told reporters in Jiuquan on Wednesday that this mission would be more arduous and challenging than his previous two.

“We will not only have to arrange the core module, the ‘space home,’” he said, “but also to carry out a series of key technology verifications.”

China’s first two space stations were short-lived prototypes, but the Tiangong is intended to operate for at least a decade, joining the International Space Station.

The Chinese station will serve as an orbiting laboratory for the country’s space program, allowing it to perfect operations and conduct new experiments — at least nine of them, so far, with international partners. Officials have said that once the station is completed next year, they will consider ferrying foreign astronauts to the station.

Mr. Ji, the assistant director, acknowledged at a briefing that China was “a latecomer” when it came to developing an orbiting space station, a feat the United States and Soviet Union accomplished decades ago. He noted, however, that China benefited from “latecomer advantages,” presumably the experiences of those previous stations.

Like all of China’s space missions, its successes in space are seen as a validation of the Communist Party’s rule. Mr. Ji noted that the Shenzhou’s crew would be in orbit on July 1, the official anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai 100 years ago.

“The construction and operation of the space station can be considered an important symbol,” he said, “measuring a country’s economic, technological and comprehensive strength.”

Late in April, China used one of the largest rockets currently flying — the Long March 5B — to lift the massive Tianhe core module of its space station to orbit. While the trip was successful, China failed to take action that would lead to a controlled re-entry to Earth of the rocket’s large core stage. For days, skywatchers wondered where the rocket would come down, and NASA’s administrator criticized China for the rocket stage’s out-of-control re-entry.

Eventually, it broke up and landed near the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, and so far there is no evidence that its debris did any damage to anything on the ground.

The tumble back to Earth was a consequence of the unusual design of the Long March 5B. Usually, the booster of a heavy-lift rocket drops off a few minutes after launch and immediately falls back toward the surface. Then a much smaller second stage takes the payload to orbit.

The Long March 5B instead consists of a 23-ton core stage and four side boosters without a second stage. The side boosters drop off, but the core stage makes it all way to orbit, creating the debris risk, because no one can reliably predict where it will land.

Asked on Wednesday about the attention on the chaotic uncontrolled re-entry in May, Mr. Ji said that China had followed protocols to notify the international community about the rocket’s descent “in a timely fashion” and would in any future missions.

The Long March 2F rocket that will carry the astronauts is a two-stage rocket much smaller than the Long March 5B, and it will not cause such global alarm. The first booster stage and side boosters will fall back to Earth without reaching orbit, and the second stage will almost entirely burn up when it re-enters the atmosphere after sending the crew toward its destination.

Future launches to complete construction of the space station, though, may again lead to worries about a crashing rocket stage. China plans more flights of the Long March 5B through 2022 as it lofts additional large components of the outpost into orbit.

A photo of China’s Zhurong rover captured via a remote camera on Mars.Credit...China National Space Administration

Another robotic Chinese mission landed on the moon in December, collected lunar rocks from the surface and returned them to Earth weeks later. That made China only the third nation, after the United States and the Soviet Union, to complete such a round-trip.

These successful endeavors have added to the likelihood that China will keep to its proposed timelines for other deep space missions. In addition to a series of robotic journeys to the lunar surface, the country will aim to collect samples from a near-Earth asteroid and return them to Earth around 2025 — something Japan has done twice. It also intends to launch a mission around 2030 to collect samples from Mars and bring them back to Earth, something NASA and the European Space Agency are collaborating on in the coming years as well.

The usual up-and-down trips of astronauts to the International Space Station will continue. Two launches are scheduled for October, one of a Russian Soyuz rocket, one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

The SpaceX mission, planned for Oct. 31, will be the fourth that the company, founded by Elon Musk, has conducted for NASA taking astronauts to and from the space station. Riding in this capsule will be three NASA astronauts — Kayla Barron, Raja Chari and Thomas Marshburn — and Matthias Maurer, a European Space Agency astronaut from Germany.

The passengers on the Soyuz launch, which is to take place earlier in the month, are quite different. The commander, Anton Shkaplerov, is a professional Russian astronaut, but the two other people — Klim Shipenko, a film director, and Yulia Peresild, an actress — are not. They going up to make a movie titled “Challenge.” Ms. Peresild will play a surgeon sent to orbit to save the life of a Russian astronaut.

Nonprofessional astronauts will also be heading to orbit from the United States. In September, SpaceX is to launch a mission called Inspiration4, purchased by a billionaire entrepreneur, Jared Isaacman, that is to take him and three other people to orbit but not to the space station. That will be the first launch of people in which no one onboard works for NASA or other governmental space agencies.

Next year, a private company, Axiom Space, is to launch four private citizens on a SpaceX rocket to visit the space station.

Two other private companies — Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic — are also expected to send passengers on brief, roller-coaster-like trips to the edge of space and back in the coming months, but not to orbit.

The International Space Station, led by the United States and Russia with contributions from 13 other nations, was originally scheduled to be retired in 2015, just four years after construction was completed. The lifetime was subsequently extended to 2020 and then through 2024. Recent legislation passed in the U.S. Senate proposed another extension, to 2030. A feasibility study by NASA concluded that the aging station could continue to operate through at least 2028.

In 2018, the Trump administration said it wanted to end direct federal financing of the International Space Station after 2024 and shift orbital operations to private space stations. After widespread criticism, NASA officials insisted that this was not a fixed deadline and that the current station would not be abandoned until its successors were operational.

Russian officials have in recent months offered conflicting statements about their plans. At first, they said they wanted to withdraw from the International Space Station in 2025. Later they softened assertions, saying that the departure would not be abrupt.

During a news conference at the Global Space Exploration Conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, this week, Dmitri Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency, said Russia was “generally not against” continuing to participate on the space station but said it might not make sense if the cost of maintaining the aging structure skyrocketed.

Claire Fu contributed research.