China sends astronauts to Tiangong space station: video and updates

Tall as a 20-story building, a rocket carrying the Shenzhou 15 mission thundered into the night sky of the Gobi Desert on Tuesday, carrying three astronauts on a rendezvous with China’s newly completed space station.

The rocket launch was a split-screen event for China, the latest in a long line of technological advances for the country, even as many of its citizens have taken the streets angrily to fight tight pandemic controls.

The air shook as the huge white rocket leaped into a star-studded, bitterly cold night sky just before the setting of a waxing crescent moon. The expedition to the new space station is a milestone in China’s rapidly advancing space program. It’s the first time a team of three astronauts already aboard the Tiangong outpost has been hit by a crew arriving from Earth. The Chinese space station will now be constantly manned, as will the International Space Station, another mark China has made in its race to catch up with the United States and surpass it as the dominant power in space.

With an ongoing presence in low Earth orbit aboard Tiangong, Chinese space officials are preparing to launch astronauts to the moon, which NASA also plans to revisit before the end of the decade as part of its Artemis program.

“It will not take long; we can achieve the goal of a manned moon landing,” said Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s manned space program, in an interview at the launch center. China has developed a lunar lander, he added, without giving a date on when it might be used.

The Shenzhou 15 launch comes less than two weeks after NASA finally launched its Artemis I mission after many delays. This flight put its unmanned Orion capsule in orbit around the moon.

At the same time, since the G20 summit in Bali earlier this month, Beijing has launched a charm offensive, courting mostly European nations and developing countries. This includes space exploration. China’s leader Xi Jinping stressed the point in a letter to a United Nations symposium Nov. 21.

“China is willing to work with other countries to strengthen exchanges and cooperation, jointly explore the mysteries of the universe, use space peacefully, and promote space technology so that people of all countries in the world can better benefit from it,” said Xi wrote.

So far, while European nations are collaborating with the United States on the Artemis missions and the International Space Station, they have not expressed much interest in Tiangong. The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection said in a written response to questions that Germany has no bilateral projects with China for its space station.

And while Germany and Italy each sent an astronaut to China’s Shandong province four years ago to train to fly aboard a Shenzhou rocket, neither country has announced plans to send astronauts on a Chinese rocket. However, some European researchers are involved in scientific experiments to be transported to Tiangong, including a proposed high-energy cosmic ray detector. Researchers from India, Peru, Mexico and Saudi Arabia have also received research opportunities on the Chinese space station through a United Nations program.

Officials in Europe have been wary of closer cooperation in space at a time of rising tensions over China’s human rights record and military buildup. They have asked China to share very detailed information about its space operations, in part to ensure the safety of astronauts. But China’s space program has outgrown the country’s military, like America’s early space program decades ago, and has been wary of widespread dissemination.

This military link was exhibited at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the desert. Camouflaged vehicles could be seen in and around the base, and some signage referred not to Shenzhou’s civilian space missiles but to Dongfeng, the ballistic missiles used in China’s nuclear arsenal.

Visitors approaching the launch center received a series of short, automatic alerts on their cellphones, beginning about 50 miles away. The warnings said they had entered a military administrative zone where photography was strictly forbidden and violators of national security were executed.

The first of these messages, in Chinese, included a cell phone number to report any foreigner sightings or suspicious activity, and ended with a warning: “Those stealing secrets will certainly be caught and beheaded once caught!” Everyone catches enemy spies and makes great contributions by apprehending them!”

Ji Qiming, deputy director-general of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, said at a press conference Monday ahead of the Shenzhou 15 launch that China is preserving the legacy of the “two bombs, one satellite” vision articulated by Mao. This program aimed to build an atomic bomb, an ICBM to carry the bomb, and a satellite from which to see the world below.

On Tuesday, foreign journalists were given unusual access to the launch center, which began construction in 1958 and is normally off-limits even to Chinese citizens.

Two journalists from The New York Times and a photographer from Kyodo News from Japan were allowed to attend the presentation, as well as a small group of journalists from Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau. Visitors from Beijing and other cities first had to spend a week in quarantine at a village hotel about 80 kilometers away and pass daily PCR tests. Foreign journalists paid for their travel, accommodation and quarantine.

The quarantine was part of elaborate precautions to prevent the Covid-19 virus from reaching the space center again. An eruption last year briefly interrupted work at the site.

The base is located 150 miles in the Gobi Desert from the nearest city of Jiayuguan in northern Gansu Province. An older China was on display on the highway from the city, as a farmer’s small herd of Bactrian camels trotted by, their double humps shaggy with dark brown fur as winter approaches.

The region around the launch center has some of the tallest stationary sand dunes in the world, reaching heights of over 1,000 feet. Flat, gray gravel surrounds the base itself, which houses an architectural mélange.

In front of the base there is a huge vertical assembly hall for missiles and modern high-rise administration buildings. Beyond are noticeably older, low-rise brick buildings with prominent Communist Party insignia, and then rows of three-story apartment buildings with peeling white paint. The astronauts’ living and training quarters used prior to the launches were built in a fanciful Art Deco style with an odd resemblance to Tomorrowland at Disneyland.

The newer buildings on the site signal how quickly China has caught up with the West in space. Charles Bolden, who ran NASA during the Obama administration, said China’s generous budgets and long-term planning gave it an advantage over the United States, where Congress is divided on space spending.

China, he said, was moving as fast as “anybody would if they had unlimited resources and didn’t have to go back” repeatedly to politicians to approve spending.

Mr. Zhou of the Manned Space Agency said China has spent money efficiently on its space program and its space station has not cost much more than $8 billion. Pay and the cost of living are low for the large community of rocket scientists who mostly live and work in isolation at the Jiuquan launch center, with even their internet communications with the rest of China restricted for national security reasons.

In contrast, NASA will spend $3 billion this year alone on the International Space Station, which has cost more than $100 billion to build and maintain over its lifetime.

When the Shenzhou 15 took off, there were three men on board: Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu. China has sent women into orbit on previous voyages but has chosen its oldest and most experienced team of astronauts to help get the just-completed space station up and running over the next six months.

The trio stood at attention as they were introduced at a press conference and delivered sharp military salutes. Mr. Fei, the space flight commander, first flew into space in 2005 and is 57 years old.

“I’m very proud and excited to be able to go into space again for my country,” he said.

Huang Weifen, chief designer of astronaut systems, said in an interview that China has added resistance training equipment and a broader menu for recent space flights, even with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Herbal treatments based on traditional Chinese medicine will be carried onboard the space station and will also be used for medicinal baths given to astronauts upon their return to Earth to limit medical damage from extended stays in space, she added.

Mr. Zhou Jianping said the experiments to be conducted by the crew would include using an extremely accurate atomic clock for gravitational research and using a space telescope for ultraviolet studies of distant areas of the universe.

“China’s aerospace industry is developing rapidly,” he said. “China is already a major aerospace power.”

Li you contributed research by Jiuquan. China sends astronauts to Tiangong space station: video and updates

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