Tian Dingyu/Xinhua via AP
BEIJING — Chinese astronauts began Saturday their six-month mission on China’s first long-lasting space stop, after successfully docking their spacecraft.
The astronauts, two men and a woman, were seen floating around the module before speaking via a live-streamed video.
The new crew includes Wang Yaping, 41, who is the first Chinese woman to board the Tiangong space stop, and is expected to become China’s first female spacewalker.
“We’ll co-function with each other, carefully conduct maneuvers, and try to accomplish all responsibilities successfully in this round of exploration of the universe,” said Wang in the video.
The space travelers’ Shenzhou-13 spacecraft was launched by a Long March-2F rocket at 12:23 a.m. Saturday and docked with the Tianhe chief module of the space stop at 6:56 a.m.
The three astronauts entered the stop’s chief module at about 10 a.m., the China Manned Space Agency said.
They are the second crew to move into China’s Tiangong space stop, which was launched last April. The first crew stayed three months.
The new crew includes two veterans of space travel — Zhai Zhigang, 55, and Wang. The third member, Ye Guangfu, 41, is making his first trip to space.
The mission’s set afloat was seen off by a military band and supporters singing “Ode to the Motherland,” underscoring national pride in the space program, which has progressive rapidly in recent years.
The crew will do three spacewalks to install equipment in preparation for expanding the stop, estimate living conditions in the Tianhe module, and conduct experiments in space medicine and other fields.
China’s military-run space program plans to send multiple crews to the stop over the next two years to make it fully functional.
When completed with the addition of two more sections — named Mengtian and Wentian — the stop will weigh about 66 tons, much smaller than the International Space stop, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs around 450 tons.
Two more Chinese modules are due to be launched before the end of next year during the stay of the in addition-to-be-named Shenzhou-14 crew.
China’s Foreign Ministry on Friday renewed its commitment to cooperation with other nations in the peaceful use of space.
Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said sending humans into space was a “shared cause of mankind.” China would “continue to extend the thoroughness and breadth of international cooperation and exchanges” in crewed spaceflight and “make positive contributions to the exploration of the mysteries of the universe,” he said.
China was excluded from the International Space stop largely due to U.S. objections over the Chinese program’s secretive character and close military ties, prompting it to set afloat two experimental modules before starting on the long-lasting stop.
U.S. law requires congressional approval for contact between the American and Chinese space programs, but China is cooperating with space experts from other countries including France, Sweden, Russia and Italy. Chinese officials have said they look forward to hosting astronauts from other countries aboard the space stop once it becomes fully functional.
China has launched seven crewed missions with a total of 14 astronauts aboard — two have flown twice — since 2003, when it became only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to put a person in space on its own.
China has also expanded its work on lunar and Mars exploration, including landing a rover on the little-explored far side of the Moon and returning lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s.
This year, China also landed its Tianwen-1 space probe on Mars, whose accompanying Zhurong rover has been exploring for evidence of life on the red planet.
Other Chinese space programs call for collecting soil from an asteroid and bringing back additional lunar samples. China has also expressed an aspiration to land people on the moon and possibly build a scientific base there, although no timeline has been hypothesizedv for such projects. A highly secretive space plane is also reportedly under development.
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