China Space Mission: Shenzhou-14 Crew Launch for New Tiangong Space Station

The astronauts lifted off from the Shenzhou-14 spacecraft at 10:44 a.m. local time, launched by a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, Inner Mongolia.

The team will live and work in the Tianhe Core Module of the Tiangong Space Station for six months before returning to Earth in December. Tiangong means Heavenly Palace.

The crew includes Chen Dong, Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe, who are expected to dock with the space station approximately 6.5 hours after launch.

Chen, the mission commander, was aboard China’s Shenzhou-11 manned space mission in 2016 and previously held the record for the longest stay in space by a Chinese astronaut. Liu became the very first Chinese woman in space in 2012 during the Shenzhou-9 mission. And this will be Cai’s first space mission.

It is the third crewed mission during the construction of the space station, which China plans to have fully equipped and operational by December 2022. The first crewed mission, a three-month stay by three other astronauts , was completed in September 2021. The second, Shenzhou-13, saw three astronauts spend six months in space for the first time.

Six months is the standard mission length for many countries, but it’s an important opportunity for Chinese astronauts to get used to a long-term stay in space and help prepare future astronauts to do same.

Six space missions are scheduled by the end of the year, including another crewed mission, two laboratory modules and two cargo missions.

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The team aboard Shenzhou-14 will help with the docking, positioning and testing of the two laboratory modules Wentian and Mengtian, which are to be launched in July and October.

The modules will be assembled into a T-shaped structure, with the main Tianhe cabin – the main living space for astronauts – growing from 50 cubic meters to 110 cubic meters, CMSA said. Astronauts will also complete two to three spacewalks.

At the end of the Shenzhou-14 mission, three more astronauts are expected to rotate and live with the crew for five to 10 days, bringing the number of Chinese astronauts in space at the same time to a record six.

After construction is completed, the Tiangong space station is expected to last 15 years. China plans to launch two crewed missions and two cargo missions to the station each year, according to CMSA.

The crewed Shenzhou-14 spacecraft and a Long March-2F carrier rocket before being transferred to the launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China on May 29.

The Chinese space program

Last year’s Shenzhou-13 mission was a major milestone for the country’s fledgling space program, which is fast becoming one of the most advanced in the world.

China’s space program was late in the game, established only in the early 1970s, years after American astronaut Neil Armstrong had already landed on the moon. But the chaos of China’s Cultural Revolution brought the nation’s space effort to a halt — and progress was set back until the early 1990s.

Space administrators chose two classes of astronauts in 1998 and 2010, paving the way for a rapid acceleration of space missions. Aided by the economic reforms of the 1980s, China’s space program quietly progressed until the launch of the first crewed mission in 2003.

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The government has since invested billions of dollars in the space program – and the payoff is obvious. China successfully landed an exploratory rover on the Moon in December 2020 and one on Mars in May 2021. The first module of the Tiangong Space Station was launched in April 2021.
China’s ambitions stretch for years to come, with big plans for space exploration, research and commercialization. One of the biggest undertakings will be to build a joint Sino-Russian research station at the moon’s south pole by 2035, a facility that will be open to international participation.

CNN’s Jessie Yeung and Steven Jiang contributed.

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