BEIJING – China successfully launched its longest-ever manned space mission — 15 days — on Tuesday, with the nation’s second female astronaut among the crew, in the next step for the ambitious space program, a symbol of the country’s growing might.
Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived at the Jiuquan launch center in the Gobi Desert to watch the lift-off of the Shenzhou-10 spacecraft, which was to dock with the nation’s orbiting Tiangong 1 space lab.
Beijing sees the multibillion-dollar space program as a marker of its rising global stature and mounting technical expertise, as well as the ruling Communist Party’s success in turning around the fortunes of the once poverty-stricken nation.
The program is heavily promoted to the nation’s domestic audience, and state broadcaster CCTV began continuous coverage several hours before the launch.
Xi told the three astronauts, including female air force pilot Wang Yaping, 33, that he had come to see them off on behalf of the Communist Party, the government, the military and “all the nationalities and people of the entire nation.”
“You make all the Chinese people feel proud. Your mission is both glorious and sacred,” he added.
Mission commander Nie Haisheng responded: “We will certainly obey orders, comply with commands, be steady and calm, work with utmost care and perfectly complete the Shenzhou-10 mission.”
The three crew members, in white space suits, emerged from a building and greeted crowds of well-wishers waving flags and artificial flowers, some in traditional costumes, before getting into a bus for transfer to the launchpad.
State-run newspapers also gave the mission blanket coverage, with stories and pictures of the astronauts on almost every front page.
Wang is scheduled to teach lessons to schoolchildren via a video link during the mission, officials said.
“We are all students in facing the vast universe. We are looking forward to joining our young friends to learn and explore the mystical and beautiful universe,” she told a news conference Monday.
The official Xinhua News Agency ran profiles of the three astronauts, and said that Wang has 1,600 hours of flying experience, including clearing clouds for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
She is a major in the military and a member of the Communist Party.
“The experience of doing farm work since an early age has made her strong, and the habit of long-distance running tempered her will,” Xinhua said.
It quoted her as saying that during parachute exercises in the air force: “We girls all cried while singing an inspiring song ‘A Hero Never Dies’ on our way back after the training.”
The Shenzhou-10 will dock with the Tiangong 1 and the crew will transfer into it and carry out medical and space technology experiments.
China first sent a human into space only in 2003 and its capabilities still lag behind the U.S. and Russia, but its program is highly ambitious and includes plans to land a man on the moon and build a station orbiting Earth by 2020.