China prepares to launch Three crew members into space for the first time in five years

The Long March-2F carrier rocket will be carrying the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft for China's first manned mission to its new space station [China News Service via AFP]

On Thursday, China will launch three men into space for the first time in over five years, as part of an ambitious plan to build a space station by the end of next year.

An official with the China Manned Space Agency announced on Wednesday that the Shenzhou-12 will be launched from Jiuquan in northwestern Gansu province at 9:22 a.m. (01:22 GMT) on Thursday.

Nie Haisheng, 56, Liu Boming, 54, and Tang Hongbo, 45, are the astronauts, according to Ji Qiming, assistant director of the China Manned Space Agency. Nie will be the oldest person ever sent into space by China.

Shenzhou-12, which means "Divine Vessel," is the third of 11 missions required to finish China's space station by 2022.

At least four of the 11 planned flights will be manned, with up to 12 Chinese astronauts potentially going into space.

With the launch of Tianhe - the first and largest of the station's three modules – in late April, China began construction of the space station this year.

The Shenzhou-12 crew will spend three months on the Tianhe, which translates to "Harmony of the Heavens" and is a cylinder 16.6 meters (55 feet) long and 4.2 meters (14 feet) in diameter.

The expedition will be led by China's oldest astronaut.

The operation will be led by Nie, a former air force pilot from central Hubei province.

According to the Xinhua news agency, the Shenzhou-12 will be Nie's third space journey, following the Shenzhou-6 mission in 2005 and the Shenzhou-10 mission in 2013.

It will be Liu's second space journey, after the Shenzhou-7 mission in 2008, which included a historic spacewalk. Tang will be making his first trip into space.

Three backup astronauts are also on board for the voyage.

China's last crewed flying mission was in 2016, when two men, Chen Dong and Jing Haipeng, were transported to Tiangong-2, a prototype of the space station, aboard the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft, where they stayed for almost a month.

According to the Global Times, though no women are set to participate in the Shenzhou-12 mission, they are planned to participate in every subsequent trip.

Following the initial batch of 14 males in the mid-1990s, two women, Liu Yang and Wang Yaping, were chosen in 2011 as part of China's second group of astronauts. In 2012, Liu became China's first woman in space, while Wang was the youngest, at 33, in 2013.

Internationally, Chinese astronauts have maintained a low profile.

NASA astronauts have not visited the more than two-decade-old International Space Station, which has been visited by more than 240 men and women of all nations. This is due to a US rule prohibiting NASA from having any link with China.

China has been accelerating its space program in order to compete with the West, notably the US.

Beijing wants to become a major spacefaring force by 2030, making space the newest front in its competition with the United States.

It became the second country to land a rover on Mars in May, two years after the first spacecraft landed on the moon's far side.

Publish : 2021-06-16 13:10:00

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