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AFP
June 17, 2021

China to launch first crew to new space station

AFP
June 17, 2021

JIUQUAN, China: Astronauts blasting off on Thursday for China's first crewed mission to its new space station will have a choice of 120 different types of food and "space treadmills" for exercise, China's space agency said. The mission will be China's longest crewed space mission to date and the first in nearly five years, as Beijing pushes forward with its ambitious programme to establish itself as a space power. The astronauts will spend three months on the Tiangong station, which has separate living modules for each of them as well as a shared bathroom, dining area, and a communication centre to send emails and allow video calls with ground control. The trio will be able to work off their range of dinner options -- which officials assured reporters were all nutritious and tasty -- on the special treadmills or exercise bikes.

The Long March-2F rocket that will get them there will lift off at 9:22am local time (0122 GMT) from the Jiuquan launch centre in northwest China's Gobi desert, the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) said Wednesday.

The mission's commander, Nie Haisheng, told reporters at a press conference that his team has undergone over 6,000 hours of training. Nie was among the first batch of Chinese astronauts selected for training in 1998, and has already been on two space missions. Their Shenzhou-12 spacecraft will dock with the main section of the Tiangong space station, named Tianhe, which was placed in orbit on April 29. Another 11 missions are planned over the next year and a half to complete the construction of Tiangong in orbit, including the attachment of solar panels and two laboratory modules. The astronauts will be kept busy testing and maintaining the systems onboard, conducting spacewalks and undertaking scientific experiments. The mission is a matter of prestige for the Chinese government as it prepares to mark the 100th birthday of the ruling Communist Party on July 1.

China's desire for a human outpost of its own in Earth orbit was fuelled by a US ban on its astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS). "We are willing to carry out international cooperation with any country that is committed to the peaceful use of outer space," Ji Qiming of the CMSA told reporters on Wednesday. The ISS -- a collaboration between the US, Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan -- is due for retirement after 2024, although NASA has said it could potentially remain functional beyond 2028. Tiangong is expected to have a lifespan of at least 10 years.