Facts about China's historic manned mission to its new space station—including what the Chinese astronauts will be eating
On the morning of June 17, three Chinese crew members blasted into the sky, bound for China’s under construction space station Tiangong. Powered by the gargantuan Long March-2F rocket, their Shenzhou-12 capsule successfully docked at the space station’s core module, Tianhe, after just a few hours.
The Shenzhou-12 launch is the first crewed Chinese space mission since 2016, and represents the latest development in China’s manned space program, an initiative which began in 1992 and put the first Chinese citizen into orbit in 2003. The footage of the three astronauts (or taikonauts, the English name for Chinese space voyagers) in blue suits, lining up in the space station and saluting back to Earth, may become an iconic moment in the collective memory of the nation. As the Chinese space crew begins life in their temporary home, here is everything you need to know about the Shenzhou-12 mission:
Shenzhou-12 is the first spaceflight to send a human crew to the Tianhe core module of the Tiangong, China’s new space station which is due to be completed in 2022. The space station will be the astronauts’ home for three months, the longest continuous period of time any Chinese has ever spent in space. The previous record of 33 days was set by the crew of Shenzhou-11 in 2016.
During their stay, the astronauts are scheduled to complete two spacewalks. The crew will use robotic arms to move around the ship and carry out repair tasks, as well as various experiments and tests on the Tiangong‘s equipment. But high on the crew’s to-do-list is to open the packages of supplies delivered by the Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft less than three weeks ago. The 6.8 tons of supplies include two specialized spacesuits for spacewalks, oxygen tanks, food, water, propellant, and other supplies. At the end of the mission, the crew will ride the Shenzhou-12’s descent vehicle back to Earth, and land at the Dongfeng landing site in the Badain Jaran Desert in the western part of Inner Mongolian.
The all-male crew has an average age of 52. Nie Haisheng, 57, is the commander of the mission. This his third flight into space. His first, in 2005, was part of the Shenzhou-6 mission. Nie was last in space as commander of the Shenzhou-10 mission in 2013, during which he and his crewmembers entered into the now-decommissioned Tiangong-1 space station. By the end of the Shenzhou-12 mission, Nie will have spent about 114 days in space in total, a record for a Chinese citizen.
Nie was born to a rural family in Hubei province as the sixth of eight children. In a personal statement in 2018, he recalled that his family was too poor to pay for his elementary school fees—one year, they gave the school a rabbit raised in their courtyard in lieu of cash. Nie’s father passed away when he was 16, and Nie almost dropped out of high school due to lack of funds. Luckily, his school waived all of his fees.
After high school, Nie enrolled in the Changchun Air Force Aviation Academy (now the Aviation University of the Air Force) and later became a fighter pilot. In 1998, Nie and 13 others were selected to become China’s first-generation of taikonauts, out of 1,500 outstanding pilots. “I’m lucky to carry the first baton in building the space station,” Nie said in a pre-launch press conference.
Shenzhou-12 is the second space mission of 55-year-old Liu Boming, who served on the Shenzhou-7 in 2008. Liu had a similar career track to Nie. “Looking back, the 13 years [since the Shenzhou-7 mission] flew by fast…The happiness of my last mission seems like yesterday.” Liu told journalists on June 16.
Liu’s last mission wasn’t all full of happiness, though. While assisting China’s first spacewalk carried out by Zhai Zhigang, the two had trouble opening their spacecraft’s hatch. When the hatch finally opened and Zhai began his spacewalk, the fire alarm back in the orbital module went off. Later analysis showed uneven air pressure inside and outside the ship prevented the hatch from opening, while the fire alarm turned out to be due to a sensor malfunction. Liu and Zhai eventually prevailed and carried out the momentous spacewalk as planned.
Liu grew up in rural Heilongjiang in northeastern China, where he had almost no English lessons until high school and failed miserably during the English portion of his high school entrance exam. After working hard at the subject, Liu is now regarded as one of the best English speakers among all of China’s astronauts. In a report by Xinhua News Agency, Liu recalled reading about American astronaut Neil Armstrong in high school English classes: “’That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’ When I read this declaration by Neil Armstrong during the moon landing, I was in awe of these noble words: space exploration is indeed an enterprise of all mankind.”
At 46, Yang Hongbo is the youngest among the Shenzhou-12 crew. He became an astronaut in 2010 as one of the second-generation of Chinese astronauts (which includes five men and two women), and served as backup crew for the Shenzhou-11 mission in 2016. This will be Yang’s first time in space: “I will enjoy the beautiful view of our home plant very much…I also look forward to visit the Tiangong with international astronauts one day,” he told reporters the day before the launch.
There is also a backup crew consisting of Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping, and Ye Guangfu. Wang is a female astronaut who served on the Shenzhou-10 mission in 2013.
The Shenzhou-12 was launched by the Long March-2F , the designated rocket for Shenzhou missions since 1999, from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Inner Mongolia in China’s northwest. The current rocket model is installed with a state-of-the-art emergency escape system that can separate and propel the astronauts’ capsule from the rocket in an emergency.
Another rocket and the next spacecraft, Shenzhou-13, have already been assembled, tested, and readied for takeoff in as little as ten days. They are meant to rescue the crew if there is an emergency on the space station—the crew can be picked up at any point of the orbit and carried back to earth.
The launch and flight of Shenzhou-12 was guided by China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System for the first time. The satellite system achieved global coverage in 2020.
Docking the spacecraft used to be a long and arduous manual procedure: the Shenzhou-11 took more than three days to dock with the Tiangong-2 space station. For the Shenzhou-12, docking only took 6 and half hours and was completed automatically. Controlled and guided by the ship’s computer, the spacecraft calculated and executed six orbital maneuvers before aligning itself in front of the space station for automatic docking.
Life in the Space Station
After the ship docked with the space station, the astronauts opened four different hatches to access the Tianhe core module, which was sent into orbit on April 30. Tianhe has living quarters, a bathroom, kitchen, dining area, exercise area, and work stations spread over 110 square meters.
With only the American-led International Space Station for competition, Tiangong might have the best food available in space. There are more than 120 kinds of different food on board, all prepared to the astronauts’ tastes and health requirements. Among them are classic Sichuan dishes kung pao chicken and yuxiang shredded pork. Both dishes are surprisingly well-suited for space consumption: when wrapped up in a pancake, they are easy to eat without making a mess; they contain a rich variety of ingredients; there are no scraps like bones or skin to dispose of; and they contain lots of calories. Plus, they’re delicious.
Cover image from VCG