China launches first three-man crew to new space station

  • Chinese astronauts, from left, Liu Boming, Nie Haisheng, and Tang Hongbo wave as they prepare to board for liftoff at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Jiuquan in northwestern China, Thursday. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

JIUQUAN, China — China launched the first three crew members on a mission to its new space station Thursday in its first crewed mission in five years.

The astronauts, already wearing their spacesuits, were seen off by the commander of China’s manned space program, 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 as the entered the elevator to take them to the spaceship at the Jiuquan launch center in northwestern China.

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The astronauts are traveling in the Shenzhou-12 spaceship launched by a Long March-2F Y12 rocket that blasted off shortly after the target time of 9:22 a.m. heading into the bright-blue skies 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 heading to the Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, station for a three-month stay in its main living compartment where they will carry out experiments, test equipment, conduct maintenance and prepare the station for receiving two additional modules 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 and extended its solar panels.

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After the Tianhe was launched in April, the rocket that carried it into space made an uncontrolled reentry to Earth, though China dismissed criticism. Usually, discarded rocket stages reenter the atmosphere soon after liftoff, normally over water, and don’t go into orbit.

The rocket used Thursday is of a different type and the components that will reenter are expected to burn up long before they could be a danger, said Ji Qiming, assistant director of the China Manned Space Agency.

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