China launched its longest manned space mission on Oct. 17, sending two astronauts into orbit to spend a month aboard the Tiangong-2 space laboratory in a step toward its long-term plan to have a permanent, manned space station. (Reuters)

China’s march into space took another step forward Monday, as two astronauts embarked on the nation’s longest manned mission.

They aim to dock with an orbiting space lab and remain aboard for 30 days, a crucial step in China’s plans to operate its own space station by 2022 and part of a much broader space program that has ambitions to put astronauts back on the moon and land an unmanned rover on Mars.

State-run China Central Television (CCTV) showed the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft taking off from a launch center on the edge of the Gobi Desert in northern China at 7:30 a.m., carried by a Long March 2F rocket.

The astronauts were seen on board saluting seconds before takeoff. They will dock with the Tiangong-2 lab in two days and conduct scientific experiments, testing computers as well as propulsion and life-support systems, CCTV reported.

After the launch was declared a success, Defense Minister Fan Changlong read a congratulatory message from President Xi Jinping that called for China’s astronauts to explore space “more deeply and more broadly.”

The Shenzhou 11 spaceship on board a Long March-2F carrier rocket takes off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China’s Gansu province on Oct. 17. (Chinatopix via Associated Press)

Xi also encouraged them to “constantly break new ground for the manned space program, so that Chinese people will take bigger steps and march further in [their] space probe, to make new contributions to the building of China into a space power.”

The astronauts are Jing Haipeng, who will turn 50 during the trip and is flying his third mission, and Chen Dong, 37.

“It is any astronaut’s dream and pursuit to be able to perform many space missions,” Jing said Sunday, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

China is spending heavily on a space program that aims to catch up with the United States and Russia, both established space powers, and outpace Asian rivals India and Japan. As in all those countries, the space program in China is a source of great national pride.

China was excluded from participation in the International Space Station, largely because of U.S. concerns that its space program had a strong military component. Instead, it aims to build its own space station and hopes that other countries also will launch missions there. It insists that its motives are peaceful.

“Shenzhou 11 is a new beginning. It marks the imminent end to the exploratory stage of China’s manned space program,” said Zhang Yulin, deputy commander in chief of China’s manned space program and deputy chief of the armament development department of the Central Military Commission.

Zhang said China hopes to carry out regular space missions after 2020, sending astronauts, engineers and even tourists into space several times a year, Xinhua reported. It will be the only country operating a space station after the International Space Station is retired in 2024.

Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng, right, and Chen Dong wave to the crowd before getting on the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China on Oct. 17. (AP)

China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, and 10 years later it landed the Jade Rabbit rover on the moon — the first “soft landing” there in nearly four decades — although the rover later developed technical problems.

It aims to land a rover on the far side of the moon by 2018 and send an unmanned vehicle to Mars by 2020, emulating the U.S. Viking landers in 1976.

Ultimately, it hopes to land an astronaut on the moon by about 2025, more than five decades after American Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.

The current mission, lasting 33 days, is more than twice the length of China’s last manned mission, in 2013, which spanned 15 days.

Shenzhou means “divine vessel,” while Tiangong means “heavenly palace.”