On Saturday morning local time, China launched three astronauts into space, including mission commander Zhai Zhigang, who was dubbed “Space Hero” by the Chinese communist government after performing the nation’s first spacewalk in 2008. The flight will be China’s longest manned mission yet and will dock at the nation’s own space station.
According to CNN, the three-person crew took off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia onboard the Shenzhou-13 spacecraft around midnight local time.
The crew was bound for China’s new space station, Tiangong, meaning “Heavenly Palace.” They will live and work there for 183 days, or around six months, making it China’s longest space mission to date.
Andrew Jones shared images of the crew on Twitter, writing, “Two hours till launch of Shenzhou-13 from Jiuquan.”
In addition to Zhai, the crew includes Wang Yaping, who will be China’s second woman in space, and Ye Guanfu. Each crewmember will work to test the new station’s technology and conduct spacewalks.
“In the first place, any crewed mission is significant, if only because space travel by humans remains a risky endeavor,” said Dean Cheng, senior research fellow at the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy. “This will certainly be their longest mission, which is quite impressive when you consider how early it is in their human spaceflight regimen.”
Last month, China completed its first crewed mission, which involved a three-month stay with three other astronauts who helped construct the space station, which China intends to have fully crewed and operational by the end of next year.
CNN reported that China has six more missions planned before next December, including two laboratory modules, two cargo missions and two crewed missions.
“For the Chinese, this is still early in their human spaceflight effort as they’ve been doing this for less than 20 years … and for fewer than 10 missions,” Cheng continued. “In the past, the Chinese put up a crewed flight only once every two to three years. Now, they’re sending them up every few months.”
“If the Chinese maintain this pace … it reflects a major shift in the mission tempo for their human spaceflight efforts.”
China only started its space program in the early 1970s, more than a year after American astronaut Neil Armstrong has already walked on the moon. China’s Cultural Revolution also forced the communist nation to pause any progress and didn’t start up again until the early 1990s.
“What is truly impressive about China’s space program is how rapidly it has advanced, on all major fronts, from a pretty low base as recently as the 1990s,” said David Burbach, US Naval War College associate professor of national security affairs.