The first crew for China’s new space station prepared to blast off this week for the latest step in Beijing’s Beijing’s ambitious programme to establish itself as a space power. A Chinese spacecraft will blast off from the Gobi Desert on a Long March rocket in the coming days, ferrying three men to an orbiting space module for a three-month stay. The mission is China’s first crewed spaceflight in nearly five years, and a matter of prestige for the government as it prepares to mark the 100th birthday of the ruling Communist Party on July 1.
Shenzhou-12, meaning “Divine Vessel”, will be the third of 11 missions needed to complete China’s space station by 2022. Among them, four will be missions with people on board, potentially propelling up to 12 Chinese astronauts into space – more than the 11 men and women that China has sent since 2003. The main section of the Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, station was launched into orbit on April 29, and a cargo spacecraft sent up last month carried fuel, food and equipment to the station in preparation for the crewed mission. The Long March-2F Y12 rocket carrying the Shenzhou-12 spaceship was transferred to the launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China on Wednesday, the China Manned Space Engineering Office said in a brief statement. Its tentative launch date is next Wednesday.
The space agency plans a total of 11 launches through the end of next year to deliver two laboratory modules to expand the 70-ton station, along with supplies and crew members. Next week’s launch will be the third of those, and the first of the four crewed missions planned.