JIUQUAN, China — China is set to send the first three crew members to its new space station Thursday morning and envisions growing international cooperation on the ambitious project. A space agency official said Wednesday.
Two of the astronauts flew in previous missions while the third will space for the first time, China Manned Space Agency Assistant Director Ji Qiming told reporters at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China.
“Exploring the vast universe, developing space activities building a powerful space nation is our unremitting space dream,” Ji said.
“The construction and operation of China’s space station will raise our technologies and accumulate experience for all the people. It is a positive contribution by China for human exploration of the universe, peaceful utilization of outer space and pushes forward the building of a community of shared future for mankind,” he said.
Thursday’s launch begins the first crewed space mission in five years for an increasingly ambitious space program. China has sent 11 astronauts into space since becoming the third country to do so on its own in 2003 and has sent orbiters and rovers to the moon and Mars.
The astronauts will be traveling in the Shenzhou-12 spaceship launched by a Long March-2F Y12 rocket set to blast off at 9:22 a.m. (0122 GMT).
They will spend three months living on the orbiting Tianhe, Heavenly Harmony, station, conducting spacewalks, maintenance work, and science experiments. Officials have said that the first Tianhe crew are men, but women will be part of future crews.
The mission is the third of 11 planned through next year to add sections to the station and send up crews and supplies. The main living section of the station was launched in April, and the other two modules are due to be launched next year.
Beijing doesn’t participate in the International Space Station, mainly due to U.S. concerns over the Chinese program’s secrecy and its military connections. Despite that, foreign science missions and possibly alien astronauts are expected to visit the Chinese station in the future.
“Outer space is the commonwealth of people all over the world, and exploring the universe is the shared cause of all mankind,” Ji said.
“I believe that shortly when the Chinese space station is complete, we will see Chinese and foreign astronauts taking on joint missions to the Chinese space station,” Ji said.
Ji conceded the construction of the Chinese station had come “relatively late” but said that was also an advantage. It allowed China to use the latest technologies and concepts, particularly in reliability and safety.
The Tianhe builds on experience China gained from operating two experimental space stations earlier. Last month, it also landed a probe on Mars that carried a rover, the Zhurong, and earlier landed a probe and rover on the moon and brought back the first lunar samples by any country’s space program since the 1970s.
Once completed, the Tianhe will allow for stays of up to six months, similar to the much larger International Space Station.
The Chinese station reportedly intended to be used for 15 years and may outlast ISS, nearing the end of its functional lifespan.
The launch of Tianhe was considered a success, although China was criticized for allowing the uncontrolled reentry to Earth of part of the rocket that carried it into space. Usually, discarded rocket stages reenter the atmosphere soon after liftoff, generally over water, and don’t go into orbit.