China is making significant strides as it continues to move towards expanding its presence in space. Last month, the country moved ahead as it finally docked astronauts on the Tiangong space station.
With success in this mission, China is looking to show that it is serious about joining the global space race and won’t settle for collaborations with other countries that bring nothing to the table.
Planting the Chinese Flag
According to reports, three astronauts lifted off from the Gobi desert on June 16, reaching the Tiangong space station and successfully touching down.
The men - named Nie Haisheng (56), Liu Boming (54), and Tang Hongbo (45), got to the space station aboard a Long March-2F rocket. The rocket haad carried the men in a Shenzhou-12 craft to Tianhe - the main section of the Tiangong space station - in just under 7 hours.
Before they lifted off, the astronauts were treated to a commemoration ceremony at the Jiuquan satellite launch center. Their achievement is quite impressive, as the men have now become the first to participate in a Chinese crewed space mission in five years. This mission is also set to be the longest Chinese crewed mission ever scheduled, with the astronauts set to be in Tiangong for over three months. Past Chinese missions have only lasted a month at the most.
The mission also provided an opportunity for China to show that it has. While the astronauts conducted some of their in-flight operations manually, most - including the astronauts’ final descent - were performed by the rocket’s in-system computers. Reports particularly noted that China has optimized its autopilot system, which now reduced the docking process from as much as two days to just a few hours.
If anything, this shows that China has made prominent strides in space technology. Improved docking reduces strain on the astronauts, and it also ensures that the space authority can get these men and women out of Tiangong in the event of an emergency.
Everything Moving in Order
Tiangong - which translates to “Heavenly Place” - is set to become the largest man-made structure in near-Earth orbit to be operated by a single country. Interestingly, work on the space station has only just begun. The Chinese government launched Tianhe in April, with the module being the first and most important of three separate modules that will be on the space station.
Tianhe has several modern facilities, including separate living quarters for each astronaut, a treadmill for fitness, and a central communication center where the astronauts can communicate with the space authority in China.
The astronauts themselves understand the significance of the assignment that they have been given. Speaking at a news conference, Niee - the group leader - explained that their mission will play a significant part in China’s ambition to become a space power. In part, he said:
“This mission will be the first manned flight as part of the China space station’s construction. I’m very fortunate to kick off the first leg of the space station’s construction and I have many hopes. China’s space exploration development has crystallised the Chinese people’s thousand-year dream of flying to the sky, and added a heroic chapter to the 100-year history of struggle of the [Chinese Communist] party.”
Nie himself is one of China’s most impactful voices when it comes to space. The astronaut was a backup for China’s first manned spaceflight mission back in 2003, and he has flown to space twice - once in 2005 and again in 2013.
Lui, the second oldest person on the flight, took part in the Shenzhou-7 mission back in 2008. Tang, who is the youngest on the mission, is making his first foray into space.
A Big Step Forward
The astronauts will be helping to complete the installation of the other parts of Tiangong. When the space station becomes complete, it is expected to compete with the International Space Station and become a revolutionary part of research and development going forward.
Until then, China is doing a lot of prompting. According to a report from the Global Times, the business arm of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation launched a space mail service that will allow customers to send letters to the crew in Tianhe.
Each mail reportedly costs 19 yuan (about $2.94), and it will include stationery and postcards with the space station’s theme. Customers will have to mail their letters to an address, from which they will be taken to a post office in Tiangong.
According to the report, the mail service saw an influx of customers, with slots getting sold out almost immediately after they went on sale.