China Celebrates As Space Station Launch Signals Country's Growing Ambitions

China's deep-space ambitions took another meaningful step forward early Thursday when the country launched the first crewed mission to its own space station in low Earth orbit.

Weibo, China's largest social media website, was awash with celebrations as state broadcaster CCTV aired images of the Shenzhou-12 liftoff atop the Long March-2F Y12 rocket at 9:22:27 a.m. Beijing time.

The launch from China's Jiuquan site in the Gobi Desert is the country's first manned mission in five years. The crew of three onboard Shenzhen-12 ("Divine Vessel") will embark on China's longest space mission to date, lasting 90 days.

Veteran astronauts Nie Haisheng, 56, and Liu Boming, 54, are joined by newcomer Tang Hongbo, 45. They will be the first to occupy and test the instruments and facilities on Tianhe ("Harmony of the Heavens"), the core module of the Chinese station that was sent into space on April 29.

The Chinese public's reaction on social media is one of both jubilation and anticipation. The successful launch is seen as a sign of China's growing technical strength and comes exactly two weeks before the ruling Communist Party marks its 100th anniversary on July 1—a key milestone for Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Party newspaper Global Times is among the publications to have noted the significant timing of the Shenzhou-12 mission, which will coincide with the centennial.

On Weibo, which has over 500 million active monthly users, netizens have already expressed an expectation to see the five-star Chinese flag being waved from space, even more so from the WiFi-enabled living quarters of the nation's space station, named Tiangong ("Heavenly Palace").

While all three crew are members of the Communist Part of China, Nie, the most experienced of the three taikonauts and already recognized by the title of "space hero," could be given the historic honor of waving the flag.

At the time of publication, roughly eight hours after the mission began, hashtags related to the successful launch had already been read more than 3 billion times.

After Shenzhou-12 attempts the country's first automated docking of a manned spacecraft, the subsequent three-month mission will see the astronauts take part in two long spacewalks, the China Manned Space Engineering Office told the press on Wednesday.

The crew will also conduct maintenance and scientific operations onboard, with the main aim of verifying existing technology on Tianhe.

China's space station Tiangong is scheduled for completion by the end of 2022. It is designed to last 10 years but could be operational for up to 15.

The intensive program to build Tiangong will involve 11 launches in total, including four manned missions, four cargo launches and three module launches. Wentian ("Quest for Heavens") and Mengtian ("Dreaming of Heavens"), the two experiment modules that will complete the country's T-shaped space station, are scheduled to launch in the second and third quarters of 2022.

Before that, China has already scheduled a Tianzhou-3 ("Heavenly Ship") cargo launch for this September and the Shenzhou-13 mission for October.

China Launches Manned Mission To Space Station
The manned Shenzhou-12 spacecraft from China's Manned Space Engineering Office onboard the Long March-2F rocket launches with three Chinese astronauts onboard at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on June 17, 2021, in Jiuquan, Gansu, China. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images