China successfully launches first crewed mission for space station construction

NASA Astronaut Danny Olivas on a spacewalk in 2010

The Shenzhou-12 spacecraft will dock with the Tianhe main section of the space station, which was placed in orbit on April 29. Their mission marks the third of a series of 11 planned launches through 2022, all aimed at getting China's first space station up and running. The astronauts, already wearing their spacesuits, were seen off by space officials, other uniformed military personnel and a crowd of children waving flowers and flags and singing patriotic songs.

The three-month stay for Nie, Liu and Tang will be the longest for any Chinese astronauts, and one focus will be seeing how the men handle their relatively long time in orbit.

The rocket dropped its boosters about two minutes into the flight followed by the coiling surrounding Shenzhou-12 at the top of the rocket.

"Over the past decades, we have written several glorious chapters in China's space history and this mission embodies the expectations of the people and the party itself", the mission's commander, Nie Haisheng, told reporters at a press conference.

United States legislation bars Nasa from any cooperation with China, and Chinese astronauts have not been to the more than two-decade-old International Space Station (ISS), which has been visited by more than 240 men and women of various nationalities.

"So the astronauts can have a good rest in space which should make them less exhausted", Gao said.

"We are willing to carry out worldwide cooperation with any country that is committed to the peaceful use of outer space", Ji Qiming of the CMSA told reporters on Wednesday.

Other improvements include an increase in the number of automated and remote-controlled systems that should "significantly lessen the pressure on the astronauts", Gao said. It is also the first in almost five years after the country's last manned mission in 2016.

Tianhe is 16.6 metres long and 4.2 metres in diameter, and houses all the life support kit that the crew will need to live in space for three months.

Liftoff took place at 9:22 am local time (0122 GMT) from the Jiuquan launch centre in northwest China's Gobi desert.

The ISS may be decommissioned in 2024 if the project does not receive new funding, and China could end up being the operator of the only space station in Earth's orbit.

Ji said that as the Chinese space station, named Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace, has entered the construction stage, China will deepen its cooperation and exchanges with partners in a wide variety of fields ranging from space science and technology to joint flights.

The rocket used Thursday is of a different type and the components that will reenter are expected to burn up long before they could be a danger, said Ji Qiming, assistant director of the China Manned Space Agency.

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