China launches manned space mission

Long March 2F rocket carrying three astronauts blasts into orbit for country’s longest space trip

Chinese astronauts (from left): Wang Yaping, Zhang Xiaoguang and Nie Haisheng, wave before leaving for the Shenzhou-10 manned spacecraft mission at Jiuquan satellite launch centre inJiuquan, Gansu province, on Tuesday. Photograph: Reuters/China Daily

Chinese astronauts (from left): Wang Yaping, Zhang Xiaoguang and Nie Haisheng, wave before leaving for the Shenzhou-10 manned spacecraft mission at Jiuquan satellite launch centre inJiuquan, Gansu province, on Tuesday. Photograph: Reuters/China Daily

Wed, Jun 12, 2013, 16:10

Clifford Coonan
in Beijing

The Xinhua news agency hailed the triumph of three Communists in space after China successfully launched its fifth manned spacecraft late on Tuesday, sending three astronauts into orbit on the country’s longest space trip. A Long March 2F rocket carrying three astronauts, or taikonauts as they are known in China, aboard the Shenzhou 10 astronaut capsule, lifted off as scheduled at 5.38pm on Tuesday.

China has launched 10 astronauts and six spacecraft into space in less than a decade and space travel is central to its ambitions to make the early 21st century an age of space discovery and development.

The country’s space programme is shifting from being exclusively military-focused with a propaganda arm into something that can be used to boost innovation and lift national spirits.

“You have made Chinese people feel proud of ourselves,” President Xi Jinping told the astronauts at the launch site at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre on the edge of the Gobi Desert. “The mission’s crew members carry a space dream of the Chinese nation, and represent the lofty aspirations of the Chinese people to explore space,” said Mr Xi.

In its journey, Shenzhou-10 will dock with the orbiting space lab Tiangong-1 twice, once through automatic operation and the other manually. The commander, Nie Haisheng (48) is a second-time space traveller. His teammate Wang Yaping is China’s first space traveller. She was born in the 1980s, a generation that came of age during an era of reform and opening up, and is the second female taikonaut. The third astronaut is Zhang Xiaoguang, who will film a lecture on board the spacecraft to a group of teenage students on the ground.

Success in space is a powerful symbol of China’s rising power, of its improving technical expertise, and of the Communist Party’s remarkable progress in turning around the once isolated and impoverished country. The module is considered the first step toward China operating a permanent space station by approximately 2020, making it the world’s third country to do so.

Yang Liwei, the country’s first astronaut, told Xinhua that Chinese astronauts might not pray like their foreign counterparts do before they set off on a space mission but Communism, as their shared faith, supports them.

“If the country has its own space station, Chinese astronauts, who are party members, might set up a party branch up there,” Mr Yang said. These days, the United States is focused on more earthbound matters, and on exploring distant planets like Mars, but over the next decade, China’s space programme will really go into orbit, as it seeks to reflect its growing economic power with a significant presence in space. The crew of two men and one woman were all veteran Air Force pilots before being selected as astronauts, although it was not said whether they would sing David Bowie’s Space Oddity in Chinese while in orbit.