Chinese astronauts set foot in station


Three astronauts have arrived in an unfinished space station in China's first crewed mission since 2016, expanding the country's near-Earth presence and challenging US leadership in orbital space.

The trio of Nie Haisheng, 56, Liu Boming, 54, and Tang Hongbo, 45, rode to Tianhe - the module that will be the living quarters of China's completed space station - yesterday on Shenzhou-12, or "Divine Vessel."

They will live in the module for three months - the longest stay in low-Earth orbit by any Chinese.

The station, to be finished by the end of next year, will be the only alternative to the two-decade-old International Space Station, which may be retired in 2024.

If the ISS, backed mainly by the United States, Russia, western European nations, Japan and Canada, is decommissioned, China would be the operator of the only active space station.

That would potentially give it greater power in shaping future norms and regulations for near-Earth space, which is already teeming with Chinese satellites.

"At this stage we haven't considered the participation of international astronauts," said Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China's manned space program, at the Shenzhou launch site in Gansu province.

But there is also a plan for Hongkongers to become astronauts by joining missions, Zhou said.

Shenzhou-12 is the third of 11 missions - four will be crewed - needed to complete China's first fully fledged space station. Construction began in April with the launch of Tianhe, a cylinder-like module slightly bigger than a city bus.

The Shenzhou-12 astronauts will test technologies on Tianhe and be monitored for how they fare in space physically and psychologically ahead of an upcoming mission to the station lasting six months.

Barred by US law from working with NASA and by extension on the ISS, China has spent 10 years developing technologies to build its own space station in addition to planning missions to the moon, Mars and other planets.

As for the current mission, a live feed from inside the spacecraft during the journey showed the astronauts lifting their helmet visors after reaching orbit for smiles and waves.

Around seven hours after launch it was confirmed the craft had docked with Tianhe.

The astronauts were shown on television entering the core module, with one making a 360-degree flip in the process.

Nie had noted a day before the launch that he was on the first crewed flight in the space station's construction phase "and I'm lucky to be able to have the first baton."

The veteran is in fact a hero for younger people on China's space team.

Wang Yaping, in the Shenzhou-12 backup team, said: "In our crew elder brother Nie is like the needle that stills the sea."

Liu, like Nie, was from the first batch of hopefuls selected in the 1990s for China's space program.

On the Shenzhou-7 mission in 2008, Liu famously used a crowbar to pry open a jammed hatch.

Former air force pilot Tang Hongbo, 45, was from a later batch and trained for more than a decade before being selected for his first spaceflight on Shenzhou-12.

China has since 2003 launched six crewed missions and sent 11 astronauts into space.

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July 2021

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