A Long March rocket blasted off from China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center today, carrying three astronauts to China’s new space station. The launch marks China’s first crewed mission in five years.
The launch of the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft took place at 9:22AM local time on Thursday morning. The three astronauts, Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo, will be the first three people to board China’s space station, Tianhe. They will stay on Tianhe for three months, bringing the space station online.
The core module of Tianhe, which contains the crew’s living quarters, was launched in April 2021. This first crewed mission is part of eleven planned missions during the space station’s construction phase — two more modules and several more cargo and crewed missions need to be completed before the space station is finished in 2022.
China’s last crewed mission took place in 2016, sending astronauts to visit the country’s previous space station, Tiangong-2. That station deorbited in 2019. Since then, China has continued to push forward with an ambitious space program. It sent a sample return mission to the Moon and back again in 2020, and landed a rover on Mars earlier this year. Long-term, the country is building partnerships with Russia, with plans to land astronauts on the Moon in the next decade.