A team of three astronauts is scheduled to head to space in less than 24 hours to become the first crew to construct the country’s ambitious space station.
The all-male crew including experienced astronauts Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming, along with first-timer Tang Hongbo, will board a Long March 2F rocket scheduled to blast off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center early Thursday. The mission, dubbed Shenzhou-12, is China’s first crewed space mission since 2016, when the Shenzhou-11 flew two people to a now-destroyed prototype space lab.
“The flight crew is in good shape, and all the pre-launch preparations are in order,” Ji Qiming, assistant director general of China Manned Space Agency, said during a press conference on the eve of the mission’s launch.
Nie, 56, is the commander of the upcoming mission with two previous space trips — in 2005 and 2013 — under his belt, while Liu, 54, was on a spacecraft bound for Earth’s orbit in 2007. During that mission, Liu had assisted Zhai Zhigang in performing the first spacewalk done by a Chinese astronaut.
Zhai has also been assigned as a backup commander for the upcoming mission, which means he will travel to space, if needed.
“The launch will be a big moment for the Chinese space program,” Blaine Curcio, a Hong Kong-based space industry analyst, told Sixth Tone. “Constructing the space station is a difficult and expensive task that takes a lot of different science and technologies to do.”
The three astronauts — Nie, Liu, and Tang — on board the Shenzhou-12 will play an instrumental role in constructing the Chinese space station Tiangong, or “sky palace,” Ji said. This is the third out of 11 launches for building the space station, with the first and core unit blasting off from Earth in April.
Tiangong is scheduled to be completed in 2022 and will serve as the national space laboratory, Ji said. China’s space station will come at a critical moment, as the International Space Station is scheduled to retire in 2024.
“In terms of the objectives for the Chinese space program, there’s the science and technology development side of things,” Curico said. “You have a lot of research being done in orbit that you can’t do on Earth … But also there’s a national pride element to the space program, and international recognition.”
Ji suggested that the facility could be a collaborative space for countries, particularly with Russia, as China has already been teaming up with the country on other space projects, including a research station on the moon.
The astronaut trio will stay in the space station for three months to perform experiments and test technologies, including the spacewalk, according to Ji. If the mission goes as planned, it will be the longest duration for Chinese astronauts in space.
“In terms of space food, there will be over 120 kinds of food with balanced nutrition, rich variety, good taste, and a long shelf life,” Ji said. “There are also space treadmills and space bicycles for the astronauts’ daily exercise.”
Last month, China also launched a robotic cargo spaceship that docked with the space station’s core unit to deliver food, including the much-favored kung pao chicken, to prepare for the astronauts’ arrival. The spacecraft also sent two sets of spacesuits for the spacewalk to the station.
Contributions: Rayna Song; editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: From left to right, astronaut Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng, and Liu Boming, June 2021. Xu Bu via Xinhua)