Here’s a look at the key developments:
What is the purpose of the mission?
The three-member crew must stay for three months in the station’s main housing module, called Tianhe or Heavenly Harmony. They will conduct science experiments and maintenance, spacewalks, and prepare the facility to receive two additional modules next year.
While China admits it was late to the space station game, it says its facilities are state-of-the-art. It could also last longer than the International Space Station, which is nearing the end of its effective useful life.
The mission also revives China’s manned space program after a five-year hiatus. With Thursday’s launch, China has sent 14 astronauts into space since it first accomplished the feat in 2003, becoming the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to do so.
Why is China building the station?
As the Chinese economy began to gather steam in the early 1990s, China formulated a plan for space exploration, which it has carried out with a steady and cautious cadence. While China has been banned from participating in the International Space Station, primarily due to US objections to the secretive nature of the Chinese program and close military connections, the country likely built its own station anyway. as it sought the status of a great space power.
At a press conference on Wednesday, China Manned Space Agency deputy director Ji Qiming told reporters at the Jiuquan launch center that the construction and operation of the space station will elevate China’s technologies and “ accumulate experience for all people. ”
The space program is part of an overall push to steer China towards even more ambitious missions and provide opportunities for cooperation with Russia and other, mostly European countries, along with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.
Politics and security
China’s space program has been a huge source of national pride, embodying its rise from poverty to the world’s second-largest economy in the past four decades. That has helped shore up the power of the Communist Party, whose authoritarian rule and strict limits on political activity have been tolerated by most Chinese while the economy is growing.
Chairman and party chief Xi Jinping has been closely associated with that success, and Ji in his remarks cited Xi as setting the updated agenda for China’s rise to prominence in space. The first mission to the station also coincides with the celebration of the party’s centennial next month, an important political milestone.
At the same time, China is modernizing its military at a rapid pace, raising concerns from its neighbors, the United States, and its NATO allies. While China advocates the peaceful development of space on the basis of equality and mutual respect, many recall that China in January 2007 sent a ballistic missile into space to destroy a dormant weather satellite, creating a debris field that remains a threat.
Who are the astronauts?
Mission Commander Nie Haisheng, 56, and fellow astronauts Liu Boming, 54, and Tang Hongbo, 45, are former People’s Liberation Army Air Force pilots with graduate degrees and strong scientific backgrounds. All Chinese astronauts so far have been recruited into the military, underscoring their close ties to the space program.
For Nie, it will be his third trip to space, and for Liu, the second after a mission in 2008 that included China’s first spacewalk. Tang, who was recruited as one of the second pool of candidates in 2010, is flying into space for the first time.
Future missions to the station will include women, according to officials, with extended stays of up to six months and up to six astronauts at the station at a time during crew changes. With China stepping up international cooperation and exchanges, it is only a matter of time before foreign astronauts join Chinese colleagues on missions to the station, Ji told reporters on Wednesday.
What else is China doing?
Along with its manned space program, China has been boldly moving toward exploring the solar system with robotic spacecraft. A probe landed on Mars last month carrying a rover, the Zhurong, which is conducting a variety of studies, particularly looking for frozen water that could provide clues as to whether the red plant ever supported life.
Earlier, China landed a probe and rover on the less-explored side of the moon, joining the Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, rover that was part of an earlier lunar exploration mission. China also brought the first lunar samples to the space program from any country since the 1970s and officials say they want to send Chinese astronauts to the moon and eventually build a research base there.