China Launches First Civilian to Space, Targets 2030 for Crewed Lunar Landing

China Launches First Civilian to Space, Targets 2030 for Crewed Lunar Landing

China launched its latest crew of astronauts to the Tiangong space station, including the first civilian sent to orbit by the country’s rapidly evolving space program.

The Shenzhou-16 crew launched on board a Long March 2F rocket late Monday at 9:31 a.m. on Tuesday local time from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northern China’s Gobi Desert. The three astronauts arrived at the space station around seven hours later to begin a five-month-long mission, the South China Morning Post reported.

The fifth crewed mission to the newly completed Tiangong space station includes Gui Haichao, a professor at Beijing’s Beihang University and the first Chinese civilian to go to space. Gui will conduct orbital experiments on board the space station and manage the scientific payloads.

China launched the third and final module of Tiangong in October 2022, completing the T-shaped structure of its three-module space station in low Earth orbit. The previous crew, Shenzhou-15, arrived to the space station in November 2022 to prepare the station for operations. Shenzhou-15 crew members will hand off space station operations to their successors before departing Tiangong to return back to Earth.

With the six astronauts currently on board the Tiangong space station, in addition to the 11 astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS), the launch of the Shenzhour-16 crew tipped the number of astronauts to a record-breaking 17 people in orbit at the same time, according to Spaceflight Now. That includes the second private crew of astronauts sent to the ISS, which includes two astronauts from Saudi Arabia, as well as Emirati astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi, who launched to the space station on March 2 as part of SpaceX’s Crew-6 mission, three NASA astronauts, and three Russian astronauts.

The number of people in orbit reflects a shift in the space industry, with countries like China going big with their space programs. Aside from its newly minted space station, China recently announced its plans to land a crew of astronauts on the Moon by 2030. During a press conference at the Jiuquan launch centre ahead of the Shenzhou-16 mission launch, officials from the Chinese space agency revealed that they have started planning for a crewed lunar landing, SpaceNews reported.

“Recently, the moon landing phase of China’s crewed lunar exploration program has started,” Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), is quoted as saying at the press conference. “The main goal is to send Chinese astronauts to land on the moon for the first time by 2030.”

NASA’s Artemis program aims to land astronauts on the Moon no earlier than 2025, but the space agency has been struggling with the budget and timeline for its massive Moon rocket. It may end up being a close race to the lunar surface, with both space agencies even aiming for the same landing spots on the Moon.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has previously criticised China’s approach to space, saying the country is secretive and not open to cooperation, in an interview with NBC that aired August 28, 2022. China recently revealed its new-generation crew spacecraft designed to transport astronauts to the Moon, which it had been quietly working on.

China’s space program has taken shape in the past few years, but the country is still in need of a rocket capable of sending a crew to the Moon, as well as a lunar lander. Whether its fast-developing space program has got what it takes to land people on the Moon in seven years is still up for debate.

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