China launches 6-month crewed mission as it cements position as global space power

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Three astronauts launched by a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia take off on the Shenzhou-13 spacecraft at midnight local time.

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They will dock at China’s new space station, Tiangong (meaning Heavenly Palace), six and a half hours after launch. They will stay and work on the station for 183 days, or just six months – the country’s longest mission to date.

The crew includes Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping and Ye Guanfu, who will spend time testing the station’s technology and conducting spacewalks.


Mission Commander Zhai performed China’s first spacewalk in 2008 and was awarded the honorary title of “Space Hero” by the government.

This will be Yeh’s first mission to space; He is currently a second level astronaut in the Army Astronaut Brigade.

Wang, who also received an honorary title after participating in a 2013 mission, will be China’s first female astronaut on the space station – and the first Chinese woman to perform a spacewalk.
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Six months is the standard mission duration for many countries – but it will be an important opportunity for Chinese astronauts to get accustomed to longer stays in space and help prepare future astronauts to do so.

“First of all, any crewed mission is important, if only because space travel by humans is a risky endeavor,” said Dean Cheng, senior research fellow at the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy. “This will certainly be their longest mission, which is quite impressive when you consider how early this is in their manned spaceflight regimen.”

This is the second crewed mission during the construction of the space station, which China plans to have fully crewed and operational by December 2022. The first crewed mission, a three-month stay by three other astronauts, was completed last month.

From left, astronauts Ye Guangfu, Zhai Zhigang and Wang Yaping meet with press at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Oct. 14, before departing for the Tiangong Space Station.

Six more missions are scheduled before the end of next year, including two crew missions, two laboratory modules and two cargo missions.

“For the Chinese, this is still early in their human spaceflight endeavor because they have been doing this for less than 20 years … and for less than 10 missions,” Cheng said. “In the past, the Chinese used to fly crew only once every two to three years. Now, they’re sending them every few months.”

“If the Chinese maintain this pace … it represents a major shift in mission pace for their human spaceflight endeavors.”

Lead-up to Liftoff

Granthshala gained rare access this week to the launch, which includes a series of highly choreographed events and news conferences in the lead-up to Saturday.

The launch site looks as if it has been dropped somewhere in the middle of the Gobi Desert, hours away from the city, surrounded by barren brown fields of sand and rock. There is only one road through the middle of the desert, then a swirl of emptiness around it, only a few low mountains in the distance.

road near site It was littered with warning signs that this was a military area with no unauthorized entry allowed. country crew The space program is overseen by a military body, and many launch sites and satellites are directly operated by the People’s Liberation Army.

Arriving at the launch center was like entering a small town, filled with sprawling streets, hostels and stadiums. One billboard carried a picture of President Xi Jinping, with “Chinese dream, space dream” written next to it.

China’s space program was late to the game, only established in the early 1970s, years after the US astronaut Neil Armstrong had already landed on the moon. But China’s chaos The Cultural Revolution stopped the country’s space effort in its tracks—and progress was shelved until the early 1990s.

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

The government has invested billions of dollars in the space program since then – and the payoff is clear. China successfully landed an exploration rover on the Moon last December and Mars in May. The first module of the Tiangong space station was launched in April. Just last week, an international team of scientists released their findings from moon rocks brought back to Earth by China.

David Burback, associate professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College, said, “The really impressive thing about China’s space program is how fast it has progressed on all major fronts, most recently in the 1990s. From a very low base.”

“The European Space Agency, Russia, India and Israel have faced failures in recent years with probes to the Moon or Mars; China was successful with both on the first tries,” Burbach told Granthshala via email. Although the US still has the world’s leading space program, he said, “there is no doubt that China is the world’s No. 2 space power today.”

With grand plans for space exploration, research and commercialization, China’s ambitions extend years into the future. One of the largest undertakings will be the construction of a joint Sino-Russia research center at the Moon’s south pole by 2035 – a facility that will be open to international participation.

politics in space

Even in space, there is no escape from the politics of Earth.

Chinese astronauts have long been locked out of the International Space Station due to US political objections and legislative sanctions – which is why building a station of its own has long been a goal of China.

As China’s space program expanded, some countries such as Russia came forward to cooperate – but others remained wary. For example, it is unclear whether the EU will cooperate with China in space – especially in Europe. Skepticism about China grows after several recent diplomatic disputes and disputes over politics and human rights, Cheng said.

Meanwhile, America stands apart. It’s not an outright ban on negotiations, Cheng said — for example, American and Chinese scientists can chat at international conferences — but the 2011 Wolf Amendment is effective on true bilateral cooperation in space by preventing NASA from spending any money on negotiations. The door is ceremoniously closed. with China.

One reason space research cannot be separated from terrestrial politics, and why the issue is so complex, is because “the Chinese space program is heavily influenced, and its manned and lunar programs are overseen by the Chinese military,” said Cheng. he said. “To cooperate with China in space means to cooperate with the Chinese military.”

The US-China rivalry is spreading from Earth to space.  It's a challenge to American dominance

But Burbach, the professor, said the divide between countries “goes too far,” potentially blocking precious scientific progress.

“As things stand, US and Chinese scientists will no longer be able to trade samples of Moon rocks, which the US and Soviet Union did during the Cold War,” Burback wrote in an email.

Although he said the freezing was “understandable” given the deteriorating US-China relationship, Burback noted that “many US allies are keen to engage with China on space exploration, and the US should probably refrain from taking such a harsh line”. Not much use.”

China may not need US aid at this point. He said that China is already well ahead of Europe and is moving faster with the US.

The launchpad for Shenzhou-13 at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, pictured here on October 15, 2021, is surrounded by barren plains.

“The development of China’s manned spacecraft is based on our own plan. We have our own strategy and our plan,” said Lin Zhiqiang, deputy director general of the China Manned Space Agency. “We didn’t think about comparing ourselves with others.”

And although it has been kept out of the ISS, China’s space station could one day be the mainstay in operations, as NASA could retire the ISS by 2030.

Cheng said that if the US is “unable or unwilling to maintain a human presence in space,” China could gain an advantage and move on.

This leaves a gap for China to fill – and even if the ISS remains open, the Tiangong space station could become a major rival. China will allow foreign astronauts from different countries to stay on the station and conduct experiments – their “international reputation and diplomacy, like the US,” Burback said.


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