JIUQUAN, China – A Chinese rocket lifted off from a launch pad in the Gobi Desert on Thursday, sending three astronauts on a historic mission to an orbiting space station that China is building.
Fire and huge clouds of dust could be seen in the distance as the Long March-2F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-12 capsule pulled away from the Jiuquan satellite launch center, as the space race of the China with the United States and Russia continues to accelerate.
It was the first time in five years that China had sent humans into space.
For Rong Yi, the chief designer of the rocket, it was difficult to see it go.
“We have invested so much energy,” she told NBC News, likening the rocket to raising a child. “But I’m glad to see him complete his duty in 10 minutes.”
Shenzhou-12, or “Divine Vessel,” is one of 11 missions planned to complete construction of China’s 70-ton Tiangong or Harmony of the Heavens space station, which is expected to be operational by next year.
The astronauts will remain docked at the Tianhe main section of the station for three months – China’s longest crewed mission to date – to conduct spacewalks, maintenance work and critical testing of aircraft systems. survival and other systems.
“I believe that in the near future, when the Chinese space station is completed, we will see Chinese and foreign astronauts undertake joint missions,” Chinese Space Agency deputy director Ji Qiming said at a conference press release Wednesday before launch.
“Exploring the vast universe, developing space activities and building a powerful space nation is our never-ending space dream,” he said.
China has long been frozen off the International Space Station, or ISS, a project started 20 years ago that served as the ultimate expression of post-Cold War reconciliation between Russia and the United States. America’s concerns about the secrecy of China’s space program and its ties to its military were largely to blame.
But the aging ISS that has hosted astronauts from the United States, Russia and a number of other countries is expected to be decommissioned after 2024. As US-Russian relations deteriorate, Moscow has hinted. that it could withdraw from cooperation with the ISS in 2025, which means China could be the only country with a functioning space station.
Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, also signed an agreement in March with China’s National Space Administration to build a base on or around the moon, which they will call the International Scientific Lunar Station.
“All the firsts that the US and the USSR did during the Cold War, China just ticks them off,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “Now they’re at the point where they’re starting to think, ‘OK, we’re not just copying the West anymore, we’re going to start doing our own thing.’ And it’s going to be very interesting to watch.
Ahead of the launch, Chinese astronauts met with reporters on Wednesday inside a glass chamber to make sure they remained free of germs.
Veteran Nie Haisheng, 56, eagerly awaited his third space trip, while Liu Boming, 54, took part in a mission in 2011 that included China’s first spacewalk.
They were joined by Tang Hongbo, 40, who was eagerly awaiting his first trip to the stars, having been selected for training in 2010.
“There is pressure,” he says. “But where there is pressure, there is motivation. He added that he had “confidence in me and our team”.
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After the successful launch of Tianhe’s main module last month, state media reported that President Xi Jinping wrote a letter congratulating Chinese engineers on a breakthrough that has earned a place in the country’s history.
However, the Chinese government was forced to defend itself after NASA and others accused Beijing of acting recklessly in allowing a rocket thruster from this mission to fall to Earth in a seemingly uncontrolled manner.
Wednesday’s launch was covered by state television and celebrated as a matter of prestige ahead of the Communist Party’s 100th anniversary next month.
For Xi, the space station has symbolic value in his vision of his country as a “space power in all respects”.
But as China invests billions of dollars in its space programs, including an exploration of the far side of the Moon and its recent rover landing on Mars, some analysts fear its lack of international coordination is creating ground. dangerously competitive game in space. .
“Beijing is striving to match or exceed US capabilities in space to achieve the military, economic and prestige advantages that Washington has accumulated through space leadership,” according to the annual threat assessment released by the Office of the United Nations. director of national intelligence.
Zhou Jianping, the chief designer of the Chinese Manned Space Agency, sees it differently.
“There is no doubt that the United States is the most advanced,” he told NBC News near the launch site, “Regardless of the scale, China is developing space programs to meet the needs of our country… to make our own dream come true. “