China launches manned space mission: Veteran astronaut, treadmills and more
China sent three astronauts into orbit on Thursday in a high-stakes mission, the first of four crewed space flights to complete the country's space station by the end of next year. China launched Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo into orbit aboard the spacecraft Shenzhou-12 from Jiuquan in northwestern Gansu province, the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) has said.
The astronauts are traveling in Shenzhou-12 or Divine Vessel spaceship launched by a Long March-2F Y12 rocket to Tianhe, which means Harmony of the Heavens, the core module of China's new space station. The mission will be China's longest crewed 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 mission’s commander is Nie Haisheng and the most senior of the three is making his third trip to space. “The task is very arduous and there are many challenges. My colleagues and I will cooperate closely, operate carefully and overcome all difficulties,” Nie, the 56-year-old, said.
Nie was among the first batch of Chinese astronauts selected for training in 1998 and is a decorated air force pilot. Nie, the oldest Chinese astronaut to go to space, has said he has packed "things for entertainment and for hosting mini get-togethers" for the long trip.
The others in his team are also members of the Chinese military.
Liu Boming’s previous flight in 2008 included the first spacewalk of China. The 54-year-old said there would be multiple such activities during the mission as the astronauts carry out their science experiments, conduct maintenance and prepare the Tianhe core module to receive two other modules to be sent up next year.
China Global Television Network (CGTN) reported that Liu learned about manned space missions in high school and applied to become a military pilot without letting his parents know. According to the Chinese state media outlet, he became a fighter jet pilot in 1990 and has recorded more than 1000 hours of safe flying. He is a major general in the People's Liberation Army.
Tang Hongbo, 45, is making his first flight since being selected among the second batch of astronauts in 2010. Tang is a second-generation astronaut with 11 years of experience, CGTN said.
Tang said he had been training virtually nonstop for years. “There is pressure. But where there is pressure there is motivation and ... I have confidence in myself and have confidence in our team,” he said.
Tang told state broadcaster CCTV that he had taken videos of everyday life with his son and wife to watch on the space station.
The three men have undergone more than 6000 hours of training, including hundreds of underwater somersaults in full space gear, to get accustomed to their suits for spacewalks. They have prepared by working in a pool in spacesuits to simulate making repairs to the station during a spacewalk, officials have said.
The astronauts can choose 120 different types of food and "space treadmills" for exercise as they spend three months on the Tiangong station. They will be able to work off their range of dinner options, which officials have said were all nutritious and tasty, on the special treadmills or exercise bikes.
Tianhe, a cylinder 55 feet long and 14ft in diameter, has separate living areas 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.
Shenzhou-12 will dock with the main section of the Tiangong space station, Tianhe. Nie, Liu and Tang will be busy testing and maintaining the systems onboard, conducting spacewalks and undertaking scientific experiments.
Officials have said another eight 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 main living section of the Tiangong space station was launched in April while the other two modules will be primarily for scientific work.
China has earlier operated two experimental space stations. It also landed a probe on Mars last month that carried the Zhurong rover 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.
The station, once completed, will allow for stays of up to six months, similar to the much larger International Space Station (ISS), which is nearing the end of its functional lifespan. Tiangong is expected to have a lifespan of at least 10 years.
(With agency inputs)