jiuquan, China — Under bright-blue morning skies, China launched its first crewed space mission in five years Thursday, sending three science-minded military pilots rocketing to a new orbiting station they’re expected to reach around midafternoon. The astronauts, already wearing their spacesuits, were seen off by space officials, other uniformed military personnel, and a crowd of children waving flowers and flags and singing patriotic songs.
The three gave final waves to a crowd of people waving flags, then entered the elevator to take them to the spaceship at the Jiuquan launch center in northwestern China. The astronauts are traveling in the Shenzhou-12 spaceship launched by a Long March-2F Y12 rocket blasted off shortly after the target time of 9:22 a.m. (0122 GMT) with near-perfect visibility at the launch center on the edge of the Gobi Desert. The two veteran astronauts and a newcomer making his first space flight are scheduled to stay three months in the Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, conducting experiments, testing equipment, and preparing the station for expansion before two laboratory modules are launched next year.
The rocket dropped its boosters about two minutes into the flight, followed by the coiling surrounding Shenzhou-12 at the top of the rocket. After about 10 minutes, it separated from the rocket’s upper section, extended its solar panels, and shortly afterward entered orbit. Everywhere a half-dozen adjustments will take place over the next four to six hours to line up the spaceship for docking with the Tianhe at about 4 p.m. (0800 GMT), the mission’s deputy chief designer, Gao Xu, told state broadcaster CCTV. The travel time is down from the two days it took to reach China’s earlier experimental space stations due to “a great many breakthroughs and innovations,” Gao said.