A rocket carrying the Shenzhou 15 mission, a 20-story building, soared into the night sky of the Gobi Desert on Tuesday, carrying three astronauts heading for a rendezvous with China’s just-completed space station.
The launch was a divisive on-screen event for China, the latest in a long line of technological achievements for the country, even as many of its citizens angrily lashed out in the streets against the pandemic’s strict controls.
The expedition to the new space station from a frozen, windswept desert base is a milestone for China’s rapidly advancing space programme. This is the first time that a team from Earth has met a team of three astronauts already aboard the Tiangong outpost. The Chinese space station will now be constantly busy, as will the International Space Station, another milestone set by China in its race to catch up and overtake the United States as the dominant power in space.
With a continued presence in low Earth orbit aboard Tiangong, Chinese space officials are preparing to send astronauts to the Moon, which NASA also intends to revisit before the end of the decade as part of its Artemis program.
“It won’t take long; we can achieve the goal of a manned landing on the moon,” Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s manned space program, said in an interview at the launch center. China is developing a lunar lander, he added, without specifying. date to use it.
The launch of Shenzhou 15 comes less than two weeks after NASA finally launched its Artemis I mission after many delays. That flight put the uncrewed Orion capsule into orbit around the Moon.
At the same time, Beijing has engaged in a charm offensive since the G-20 summit in Bali earlier this month, listening in on European countries and developing countries in particular. That includes space exploration. Chinese leader Xi Jinping emphasized this point in a November 21 message to a United Nations seminar.
“China is ready to work with other countries to strengthen exchanges and cooperation, jointly explore the mysteries of the universe, peaceful use of outer space, and promote space technology to better benefit the people of all countries in the world,” said Mr. Xi. Wrote.
While European countries are working with the United States on the Artemis missions and the International Space Station, they have not yet shown much interest in Tiangong. Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action said in a written response to questions that Germany has no bilateral projects with China for its space station.
And while Germany and Italy sent an astronaut four years ago to China’s Shandong Province for flight training aboard a Shenzhou rocket, no country has announced plans to send astronauts on a Chinese rocket. Some European researchers are participating in scientific experiments that will be moved to Tiangong, including the proposed high-energy cosmic radiation detector. Researchers from India, Peru, Mexico and Saudi Arabia have also received research opportunities on the Chinese space station through a UN program.
Officials in Europe have been wary of closer cooperation in space at a time of escalating disagreements over China’s human rights record and military buildup. They have asked China to share very detailed information about its space operations, in part to ensure the safety of the astronauts. But China, whose space program is closely linked to its military, has been wary of doing so.
This military communication was on display at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the desert. Camouflaged vehicles have been seen in and around the base, and some of the signs refer not to Shenzhou civilian space missiles but to Dongfeng, the ballistic missiles used in China’s nuclear arsenal.
Visitors approaching the launch center received a series of short automated warning messages on their mobile phones, starting from about 50 miles away. The warnings stated that they had entered a military administration area where photography was strictly prohibited and violators of national security would be executed.
The first of these, in Chinese, provided a mobile phone number to report any sightings of foreigners or suspicious activity, and concluded with a warning: “Those stolen secrets will surely be caught, and once caught, they will be beheaded!” on them! “
Ji Qiming, assistant director-general of the China Manned Aerospace Engineering Bureau, said at a press conference Monday before the launch of Shenzhou 15 that China is keeping the legacy of the “two bombs, one satellite” vision expressed by Mao. This program was intended to create an atomic bomb, an intercontinental ballistic missile to carry the bomb and a satellite from which to view the world below.
On Tuesday, foreign journalists were given unfamiliar access to the launch center, which began construction in 1958 and is usually off limits even for Chinese nationals.
Two journalists from The New York Times and a photographer from Kyodo News of Japan were allowed to attend the launch event, as were a small group of journalists from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau. Visitors from Beijing and other cities were required to first spend a week in quarantine at a village hotel about 50 miles away, and pass daily PCR tests. Foreign journalists paid for their travel, accommodation, and quarantine.
The quarantine was part of detailed precautions to prevent the Covid-19 virus from reaching the space center again. An outbreak last year caused work on the site to stop briefly.
The base is located 150 miles away in the Gobi Desert from the nearest city, Jiayuguan in the northern province of Gansu. On the highway from the city, ancient China was still visible as a farmer’s small herd of Bactrian camels lounged along, twin humps shaggy with dark brown fur as winter approached.
The area around the launch center includes some of the tallest stationary sand dunes in the world, reaching over 1,000 feet in height. Flat gray gravel surrounds the base itself, which is home to an architectural mix.
A massive vertical missile assembly building and tall modern office buildings stand at the front of the base. Behind them are considerably older low-rise brick buildings with prominent Communist Party insignia, then rows of three-story apartment buildings with peeling white paint. The astronaut living and training quarters used prior to launches were built in a fanciful Art Deco style with an uncanny resemblance to Tomorrowland at Disneyland.
Newer buildings on the site indicate how quickly China is catching up to the West in space. Charles Bolden, who led NASA during the Obama administration, said China’s plentiful budgets and long-term planning have given it an advantage over the United States, where Congress is divided on space expenditures.
He said China moved as fast as “anybody if they had unlimited resources and didn’t have to go back” again and again to politicians to approve expenditures.
Mr. Zhu of the manned space agency said that China has spent money efficiently on its space program, and its space station has cost no more than $8 billion. Wages and costs of living are low for the large community of rocket scientists who live and work mostly in isolation at the Jiuquan Launch Center, with their online communications with the rest of China restricted for reasons of national security.
By contrast, NASA will spend $3 billion this year alone on the International Space Station, which has cost more than $100 billion to build and maintain over its lifetime.
Three men were on board the Shenzhou 15 when it took off: Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming, and Zhang Le. China has sent women into orbit on previous flights, but has selected its oldest and most experienced team of astronauts to prepare and operate the just-completed space station in the next six months.
The trio stood intently as he was introduced at a press conference, giving an immaculate military salute. Mr. Fey, the spaceflight leader, went into space for the first time in 2005 and is 57 years old.
“I am very proud and excited to be able to go into space again for my country,” he said.
Huang Weifen, chief designer of astronaut systems, said in an interview that China has added resistance exercise equipment and a broader menu for recent spaceflights, including fresh fruits and vegetables.
She added that herbal remedies based on traditional Chinese medicine are carried aboard the space station and are also used for therapeutic baths given to astronauts after their return to Earth, in an effort to reduce the medical damage caused by staying for long periods in space.
Mr Zhou Jianping said the experiments the crew will conduct will include the use of a highly accurate atomic clock for gravity research and the deployment of a space telescope for ultraviolet studies of distant regions of the universe.
“China’s aviation industry is developing rapidly,” he said. “China is already a major aviation power.”
me you Research contributed by Jiuquan.