China’s Manned Space Agency (CMSA) announced on Sunday that it successfully launched another manned mission to its new space station, sending three astronauts to continue construction work for six months.
At 10:44 a.m. local time, the astronauts boarded the Shenzhou-14 spacecraft, which was launched by a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Inner Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.
The team will stay and work for six months at the Tianhe core module of the Tiangong Space Station before returning to Earth in December. Tiangong is a Chinese word that means “Heavenly Palace.”
Chen Dong, Liu Yang, and Cai Xuzhe are among the crew members, and they are scheduled to dock with the space station about 6.5 hours after launch.
Chen, the mission commander, previously held the record for the longest stay in space by a Chinese astronaut aboard China’s Shenzhou-11 manned space mission in 2016. On the Shenzhou-9 mission in 2012, Liu became the first Chinese woman in space. This will also be Cai’s first space mission.
This is China’s third crewed mission as part of the space station’s construction, which the country hopes to have fully crewed and operational by December 2022. In September 2021, the first crewed mission, a three-month stay by three other astronauts, was completed. The second, Shenzhou-13, saw three astronauts spend their first six months in space.
For many countries, a six-month mission is standard, but it is an important opportunity for Chinese astronauts to get used to long-term space stays and help prepare future astronauts to do the same.
Before the end of the year, six space missions have been planned, including another crewed mission, two laboratory modules, and two cargo missions.
The crew of Shenzhou-14 will assist with the docking, setup, and testing of the two laboratory modules, Wentian and Mengtian, which will launch in July and October, respectively.
According to the CMSA, the modules will be assembled into a T-shaped structure, along with the Tianhe core cabin — the astronauts’ main living space — which will be expanded from 50 cubic meters to 110 cubic meters. Two to three spacewalks will also be performed by the astronauts.
Another three astronauts will rotate and live with the crew for five to ten days at the end of the Shenzhou-14 mission, bringing the total number of Chinese astronauts in space to a record six.
The Tiangong space station is expected to last for 15 years once it is completed. According to the CMSA, China plans to send two crewed missions and two cargo missions to the station each year.
China’s space initiative
Last year’s Shenzhou-13 mission was a significant step forward for China’s young space program, which is quickly becoming one of the most advanced in the world.
China’s space program was founded in the early 1970s, many years after American astronaut Neil Armstrong had already landed on the moon. However, the chaos of China’s Cultural Revolution halted the country’s space program, delaying progress until the early 1990s.
In 1998 and 2010, NASA selected two classes of astronauts, paving the way for a rapid increase in space missions. China’s space program quietly progressed until the launch of the first crewed mission in 2003, aided by economic reforms in the 1980s.
Since then, the government has invested billions of dollars in the space program, and the results have been visible. In December 2020, China successfully landed an exploratory rover on the moon, and in May 2021, it landed one on Mars. The Tiangong Space Station’s first module was launched in April 2021.
With grand plans for space exploration, research, and commercialization, China’s ambitions stretch years into the future. By 2035, one of the largest projects will be the construction of a joint China-Russia research station on the moon’s south pole, which will be open to international participation.