It is the first mission with Chinese astronauts in the last five years, the launch occurs in the context of technological rivalry with the United States. The first crew members arrived at the new Chinese space station on Thursday, in the framework of the most extensive mission of that country, in the context of technological rivalry with the United States.
It is the first Chinese manned space mission in five years and its members will remain in orbit for three months. Amid a context of tensions with the West, the outcome of this mission is a matter of prestige for Beijing, which is preparing to celebrate the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on July 1.
On Thursday afternoon, the Asian giant's space agency announced that the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft had successfully docked at the Tiangong ("Heavenly Palace") station. Seven hours earlier, the Long March-2F rocket took off with the three crew members at 0922 local times (0122 GMT), from the Jiuquan launch center in the Gobi desert in northwest China.
The trio did more than 6 thousand hours of training to get used to the rides in weightlessness.
"We fight every minute to fulfill our space dream," said Liu Boming, another member of the crew. "I trained by dedicating myself to the cause," he added.
The mission brings to 14 the number of astronauts put into orbit by Beijing since its first manned mission in 2003. China is the third country to do it alone after the former Soviet Union and the United States. Of those, two were women and although the first crew of the orbital station will be entirely male, it is expected that the future will also host women.
The crew, now in their spacesuits, were dismissed by the commander of the Chinese manned space program, other uniformed personnel, and a crowd of children waving flowers and flags and singing patriotic songs. The spacecraft, powered by a Long March-2F Y12 rocket, took off at 9:22 a.m. with near-perfect visibility.
The trip to the Chinese Space Station
The rocket separated from its thrusters within approximately two minutes of flight, which was followed by the bonding surrounding Shenzhou-12 on top of the rocket. After about 10 minutes, the capsule separated from the upper section and extended its solar panels shortly after entering orbit.
In the next six hours, about half a dozen adjustments were made to align the capsule for docking in the Tianhe.
Travel time was reduced from the two days it took to reach previous experimental space stations as a result of a lot of advancements and innovations," Deputy Director of Mission Design Gao Xu told state broadcaster CCTV.
Among the improvements is the increase in automated and remotely controlled systems that should significantly relieve the pressure on astronauts, he said.
NASA congratulates China on its space launch
The United States Government congratulated China on Thursday for the successful launch of the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft.
The administrator of the US aerospace agency NASA, Bill Nelson, congratulated the National Space Agency of China for the event.
"Congratulations to China on the successful launch of the crew to its space station! I look forward to the scientific discoveries to come," Nelson said in a terse statement.
China's next steps in space
Upon completion, the "Heavenly Palace" station will be similar in size to the former Soviet Mir facility (1986-2001) and is expected to have a useful life of at least 10 years, according to the Chinese space agency.
The Shenzhou-12 mission is the third launch of the 11 that will be required for the construction of the station, between 2021 and 2022. Four of those missions will be manned.
In addition to the Tianhe module, which is already in orbit, the other two remaining - which will be biotechnology, medicine, and astronomy laboratories - will be sent into space next year.
In Tianhe, the crew will dedicate themselves to maintenance work, installations, exits to space, preparation of future missions, and future stays.
The module has a space for each of them, equipment for exercises, and a communication center with ground control.
The three soldiers will be able to choose between 120 foods at meals and train on a treadmill to keep fit.
The Chinese interest in having its own human base in Earth orbit was fueled by the US refusal to give it access to the International Space Station (ISS).
The latter - a collaboration between the United States, Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan - is due to be withdrawn in 2024, although NASA says it could potentially remain in place beyond 2028.
"We are ready to cooperate with any country that commits itself to the peaceful use of space," a senior official from the China Manned Flight Agency (CMSA), Ji Qiming, told reporters.