Three Chinese Astronauts Launch for First Occupation of New Space Station

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Three Chinese astronauts launched into orbit on Thursday morning local time for a three-month mission to the nation’s first permanent space station. It will be the longest human space mission in Chinese history, and the country’s first crewed fight in nearly five years.

The mission is commanded by Nie Haisheng, 56, who has logged more than 19 days in space on two previous flights. Nie, who is a major general in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, was joined by Liu Boming, 54, who will be flying to space for the second time, and rookie astronaut Tang Hongbo, 45.

Launch of the Shenzhou-12 crew by a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center occurred on June 17 at 9:22 a.m. local time (0122 UTC/9:22 p.m. EDT on June 16).

The three astronauts headed for a six hour voyage to dock with Tianhe core of China’s first multi-module space station. Tianhe was launched into orbit on April 29. The Tianzhou-2 cargo ship automatically docked with the core one month later.

This is China’s third space station and the first to be permanently crewed. The nation previously launched smaller, single module Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 stations that were occupied for less than a month each.

Nie commanded the second of two crewed missions to Tiangong-1 station in June 2013. He conducted a manual docking of the Shenzhou-10 with the station. Nie and crewmates Zhang Xiaoguang and Wang Yaping spent nearly 15 days in space before returning to Earth.

China’s Tiangong-1 space laboratory with a Shenzhou spacecraft approaching it. (Credit: CNSA)

The mission to Tiangong-1 was Nie’s second spaceflight. He first flew aboard Shenzhou-6 in October 2005 with mission commander Fei Junlong. Nie’s daughter sang “Happy Birthday” to him over the radio as he turned 41 in orbit, an event that brought the astronaut to tears. China’s second human spaceflight lasted for more than four days.

Formerly a fighter pilot with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, Liu flew in space for three days aboard the Shenzhou-7 spacecraft with Zhai Zhigang and Jing Haipeng in September 2008. He conducted a stand-up extravehicular activity (EVA), handing a Chinese flag to Zhai as the mission commander made the nation’s first spacewalk. Liu wore a Russian Orlan-M spacesuit while Zhai wore a Chinese-made Feitian EVA suit.

Lui has said that his astronaut idols are Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first person to fly to space, and NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong, who was the first man to set foot on the moon. Lui was selected to be an astronaut in 1998.

Tang, who joined the People’s Liberation Army in 1995, will be flying to space for the first time. He selected as part of the second group of astronauts in 2010. Tang served as part of the backup crew for the Shenzhou-11 mission in 2016.

The Shenzhou-11 mission, which launched in October 2016, was China’s most recent crewed spaceflight. Its crew, Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong, holds the Chinese human spaceflight endurance record of 33 days in space. Their mission included 26 days aboard the Tiangong-2 station.

Artist’s conception of China’s permanent space station. (Credit: China Manned Space Engineering)

China’s First Multi-module Station

The three-section Tianhe module includes living quarters for the crew as well as the station’s power, propulsion, life support, guidance, navigation and orientation control. There is also a docking hub that includes ports for visiting vehicles and two science modules that are scheduled for launch next year.

Tianhe is 16.6 meters long with a diameter of 4.2 meters and a launch weight of 22,000 kg. It is longer than the core module of the Soviet Union’s decommissioned Mir space station, which had a length of 13.13 meters, a diameter of 4.15 meters and a weight of 22,400 kg.

Wentian module (Credit: Leebrandoncremer)

In 2022, China will expand the station by launching the Wentian and Mengtian experiment modules aboard Long March 5B rockets from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site. The modules are 14.4 meters long with diameters of 4.2 meters and masses of 20,000 kg.

When fully assembled, the space station will be similar in size and configuration to the Soviet Mir station. It will have a mass of about one quarter that of the International Space Station. The station is designed for a 10-year lifetime and will have an initial crew of three astronauts. That number will double to six after the station expands.

Mengtian module (Credit: Leebrandoncremer)

The Shenzhou-12 crew will return to Earth in September. The Tianzhou-3 cargo ship will be launched that same month, followed by the flight of three astronauts in the Shenzhou-13 spacecraft in October.

Later flights to the space station will be aboard China’s next-generation crewed spacecraft, which will be capable of carrying six or seven astronauts. The new vehicle, which China tested last year, is being designed for trips to the moon.