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China launches astronauts to newly completed space station

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As tall as a 20-story building, a rocket carrying the Shenzhou 15 mission roared into the night sky over the Gobi Desert on Tuesday, carrying three astronauts toward China’s newly completed space station.

The launch was a dubious event for China, the latest in a long string of the country’s technological achievements, as many of its citizens angrily protested in the streets against strict controls to combat the pandemic.

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The air rumbled as the huge white rocket leaped into the bitterly cold, starry night sky, just before the crescent Moon disappeared. Less than nine hours later, the three astronauts aboard Shenzhou 15 docked at the space station and greeted the three astronauts who completed construction of the orbital outpost this fall.

For the first time, the team of three astronauts aboard the Tiangong Outpost received a crew from Earth.

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The Chinese space station will now be constantly busy, like the International Space Station. This is another milestone set by China in its race to catch up with the United States and surpass it as the dominant power in space.

With a sustained presence in low Earth orbit aboard Tiangong, Chinese space officials are preparing to put astronauts on 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 manned moon landing,” 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 giving a date when it could be deployed.

The launch of Shenzhou 15 comes less than two weeks after NASA finally launched its Artemis 1 mission after many delays. That flight put its unmanned Orion capsule into orbit around the Moon.

At the same time, Beijing has been on a charm offensive since the Group of 20 summit in Bali earlier this month, courting European nations and developing countries in particular. This includes space exploration. Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized this point in a Nov. 21 letter to a UN symposium.

“China is willing to work with other countries to strengthen exchanges and cooperation, jointly explore the mysteries of the universe, make peaceful use of outer space, and promote space technology to better benefit the people of all countries in the world,” he wrote. Xi.

Although European countries are working with the United States on the Artemis missions and the International Space Station, so far they have not shown much interest in Tiangong. Germany’s Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Action said in a written response to questions that Germany had no bilateral projects with China for its space station.

Germany and Italy sent two astronauts four years ago to China’s Shandong province for flight training on a Shenzhou rocket, but neither country has announced plans to send astronauts on a Chinese rocket. Some European researchers are involved in scientific experiments that will be taken to Tiangong, including a proposed high-energy cosmic radiation detector. Researchers from India, Peru, Mexico and Saudi Arabia have also been offered research opportunities on the Chinese space station through a UN program.

European officials fear closer cooperation in space at a time of growing friction over respect for human rights and China’s military buildup. They urged China to share highly detailed information about its space operations, in part to ensure the safety of astronauts. But China’s space program was created by the country’s military, like the US decades ago, and has been cautious about sharing information.

That military connection was clear at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the desert. Camouflaged vehicles were visible in and around the base, and some signage referred not to civilian shenzhou space rockets but to dongfeng ballistic missiles used in China’s nuclear arsenal.

On the 22nd, foreign journalists were granted unusual access to the launch center, which began construction in 1958 and is generally off-limits even to Chinese citizens.

Two journalists from the New York Times and a photographer from Japan’s Kyodo News were allowed to attend the launch, as well as a small group of journalists from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macao. Visitors from Beijing and other cities were required to spend a week in quarantine at a village hotel some 80 kilometers away and undergo daily PCR tests. Foreign journalists paid for their travel, accommodation and quarantine.

The quarantine was part of elaborate precautions to prevent the Covid-19 virus from reaching the space center again. An outbreak last year briefly halted work at the site.

The base is in the Gobi Desert, 240 km from the nearest city, Jiayuguan, in northern Gansu province. On the highway, an older China was still seen as a small herd of a farmer’s Bactrian camels galloped by, their humps doubled with dense dark brown fur as winter approaches.

The region around the launch center has some of the highest stationary sand dunes in the world, reaching over 300 meters. Flat, gray gravel surrounds the base itself, which harbors an architectural mix.

A huge vertical assembly building for rockets and modern administrative skyscrapers stand in front of the base. Behind them are considerably older low-brick buildings with prominent Communist Party insignia, and 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, curiously similar to Disneyland’s Tomorrowland.

Zhou of the manned space agency said that China spent money efficiently on its space program and that its space station did not cost much more than $8 billion. Salary and cost of living are low for the large community of rocket scientists who live and work in almost complete isolation at the Jiuquan launch center. There, even its internet communications with the rest of China are restricted for national security reasons.

By contrast, NASA will spend $3 billion this year alone on the International Space Station, which 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 Lu. China has sent women into orbit on previous trips, but has chosen its oldest and most experienced team of astronauts to get the newly completed space station up and running over the next six months.

The trio stood to attention as they were introduced at a press conference and gave precise military salutes. Fei, the spaceflight commander, first went into space 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 endurance exercise equipment and a broader menu on recent spaceflights, including fresh fruits and vegetables.

Traditional Chinese medicine herbal treatments are carried aboard the space station and also used for medicinal baths in astronauts after their return to Earth, in an attempt to limit the medical harm of prolonged stays in space, she added.

Zhou Jianping said the experiments to be done by the crew would involve using an extremely accurate atomic clock for gravity research and deploying a space telescope for ultraviolet studies of distant areas of the universe.

“The Chinese aerospace industry is developing rapidly,” he said. “China is already a major aerospace power.”

Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves

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