China launched a spacecraft bound for its unfinished space station just past midnight Saturday local time. On board were three astronauts — including the first woman to visit the station — headed on the nation’s longest crewed space mission yet.
Zhai Zhigang, who was chosen as mission commander for the six-month trip, graduated from China’s first group of astronaut trainees in the 1990s, the Reuters news agency reported. Selected from more than 1,500 potential astronaut candidates in 1998, Zhai, once a fighter pilot in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, eventually conducted China’s first spacewalk.
“After 13 years, I am going to set out for outer space again,” Zhai said to reporters. “I feel excited. I feel inspired. I also feel some pressure.”
Wang Yaping, 41, is the first female astronaut to visit the Chinese station and the second Chinese woman to enter space.
China has spent a decade working to develop technologies for a space station. Construction of the nation’s first permanent space station, Tiangong, started in April. It is slated to comprise three modules. One, called Tianhe or “Heavenly Harmony,” is just bigger than a city bus and serves as the main living quarters. Eleven missions will be needed to fully supply and complete the station.
The six-month trip marks another step in the nation’s rapidly advancing space program.
Three Chinese astronauts returned in September from a successful 90-day visit to the station, spending their time checking Tianhe’s life-support system, going on spacewalks and deploying the module’s robotic arm. The group also video-called Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The three-month trip marked China’s first crewed mission since 2016.
“We will definitely encounter physical and psychological problems, as well as problems related to the equipment and facility,” Zhai told reporters Thursday. “Whether we can complete this flight mission well depends on our team, our tenacious will and the fighting spirit of our three crew members.”
He added that the crew’s two years of training together gives them the “power and wisdom” to resolve all difficulties.
Ahead of the launch, Beijing renewed a commitment to cooperate with the international peaceful use of space.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian described sending people to space as a “common cause of mankind.” Zhao said China would “continue to extend the depth and breadth of international cooperation and exchanges” in spaceflight and “make positive contributions to the exploration of the mysteries of the universe.”