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China launches first astronauts to its new space station, as race with U.S. heats up

Three astronauts took off from China on June 17, aimed for part of a space station still under construction. It's China's longest crewed space mission ever. (Video: Reuters)
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China launched the first astronauts to its space station on Thursday, taking a significant stride in what some U.S. officials have dubbed a new space race between the two countries.

The morning rocket launch in northwest China sent a spacecraft carrying three astronauts into Earth’s orbit, where it docked with the still-under-construction space station later in the day.

The liftoff, which Chinese officials called a “complete success,” marks the first time in five years that China has sent a crewed mission to space. It comes amid a flurry of Chinese achievements in space that have spurred the United States to speed some of its own plans.

“Make no mistake about it: We’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher,” Vice President Mike Pence said in 2019 while announcing that NASA would move up its return to the moon by four years to 2024 — a timetable the Biden administration has embraced.

Pence’s comments came two months after China became the first nation to land an unmanned spacecraft on the far side of the moon, an act the vice president said “revealed their ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the world’s preeminent spacefaring nation.”

The Chinese space station represents another milestone for the country, which didn’t launch an astronaut into space until 2003 — more than 40 years after the United States and the Soviet Union — but has since developed its space program at a torrid pace.

Another front in the tensions between the U.S. and China: Space

China began assembling its Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, station in April when it launched into orbit a module that will be living quarters for its astronauts. Last month, the module was joined by a cargo spacecraft containing equipment, propellant and supplies, including food.

Once the three astronauts — Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo — and their Shenzhou-12 spacecraft have docked with the space station, they will spend three months testing the life-support system and other equipment, conducting experiments and preparing the living quarters for expansion before two laboratory modules are launched next year, officials said. In total, China will conduct 11 missions this year and next to complete the space station.

“First of all, we need to arrange our home in the core module, then get started on a whole range of diagnostic tests on crucial technology and experiments,” mission commander Nie, 56, told reporters the day before the launch. “The task is very arduous and there are many challenges. My colleagues and I will cooperate closely, operate carefully and overcome all difficulties.”

China’s space station could soon be the only one in orbit.

After hosting a rotating cast of astronauts for more than 20 years, the aging — and occasionally leaking — International Space Station is set to see its funding run out in 2024, though NASA has said it is confident Congress and its international partners will agree to extend the station’s life.

Several companies are working on privately run, commercial replacements. But if the ISS is retired without a backup, NASA would face an “existential challenge,” as one top space agency official put it, with no place for its astronauts to go.

The International Space Station can’t stay up there forever. Will privately run, commercial replacements be ready in time?

One place American astronauts are unlikely to go is on the Tianhe.

In 2011, Congress passed a law requiring NASA to get Congressional approval before partnering with China, as well as having the FBI certify that the cooperation would not jeopardize national security. The act essentially banned China from the ISS, but it did little to slow the country’s progress in space.

Last month, China became only the second nation after the United States to successfully land a rover on Mars. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson congratulated China on the landing, but also warned Congress that it was a wake-up call.

“I want you to see this photograph,” he said, holding up an image from the landing during a House appropriations hearing.

“It is a very aggressive competitor,” he said of China. “They’re going to be landing humans on the moon. That should tell us something about our need to get off our duff and get our Human Landing System program going vigorously.”

China has already begun recruiting other countries to use its new space station.

“After the completion of China’s space station, in the near future, we will see both Chinese and foreign astronauts jointly participate in the flight of the Chinese space station,” Ji Qiming, assistant to the director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, told reporters.

Before blasting off for the space station, the three astronauts described what the mission meant for their country.

“I hope that hundreds of millions of Chinese will enjoy this journey to space with us, through us,” Liu said on Wednesday. “We will complete every mission, and more Chinese silhouettes and footprints will be left in the vast space.”

Alicia Chen contributed to this report.

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