China Launches Manned Space Mission For First Time in Five Years

China launched three astronauts Thursday morning in the country's first manned space mission in the past five years.

Launching at about 9:22 a.m. local time on Thursday, the Shenzhou-12 ship and Long March-2F Y12 rocket carrying Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming to the Tianhe—or Heavenly Harmony—space station orbiting Earth. The three astronauts will be the first to live on the station since it was launched this April.

Though the astronauts are the first Chinese astronauts to enter space in five years, another eight missions are planned. The next is in three months, which will send a new three-person crew to replace the men now on route to the Tianhe.

Tang Hongbo Nie Haisheng Liu Boming China
Chinese astronauts Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng, and Liu Boming (from left to right) were launched to the Tianhe space station on Thursday morning. Kevin Frayer/Getty

For more reporting by the Associated Press, read below.

China launched the first three crew members on a mission to its new space station Thursday in its first crewed mission in five years.

The astronauts, already wearing their spacesuits, were seen off by the commander of China's manned space program, other uniformed military personnel and a crowd of children waving flowers and flags and singing patriotic songs. The three gave final waves to a crowd of people waving flags as the entered the elevator to take them to the spaceship at the Jiuquan launch center in northwestern China.

The astronauts are traveling in the Shenzhou-12 spaceship launched by a Long March-2F Y12 rocket that blasted off shortly after the target time of 9:22 a.m. (0122 GMT) heading into the bright-blue skies with near-perfect visibility at the launch center on the edge of the Gobi Desert.

The two veteran astronauts and a newcomer making his first space flight are heading to the Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, station for a three-month stay in its main living compartment where they will carry out experiments, test equipment, conduct maintenance and prepare the station for receiving two additional modules next year.

The rocket dropped its boosters about two minutes into the flight followed by the coiling surrounding Shenzhou-12 at the top of the rocket. After about 10 minutes it separated from the rocket's upper section and extended its solar panels.

After the Tianhe was launched in April, the rocket that carried it into space made an uncontrolled reentry to Earth, though China dismissed criticism. Usually, discarded rocket stages reenter the atmosphere soon after liftoff, normally over water, and don't go into orbit.

The rocket used Thursday is of a different type and the components that will reenter are expected to burn up long before they could be a danger, said Ji Qiming, assistant director of the China Manned Space Agency.

The mission brings to 14 the number of Chinese astronauts traveling into space since China launched its first crewed mission in 2003, becoming only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to do so on its own.

The mission is the third of 11 planned through next year to add the additional sections to the station and send up crews and supplies. A fresh three-member crew and a cargo ship with supplies will be sent in three months.

China is not a participant in the International Space Station, largely as a result of U.S. objections to the Chinese program's secrecy and close military ties. However, China has been stepping up cooperation with Russia and a host of other countries, and its station may remain in space beyond the International Space Station, which is reaching the end of its functional life.

The mission builds on experience China gained from earlier operating two experimental space stations. It also landed a probe on Mars last month that carried a rover, the Zhurong, and earlier landed a probe and rover on the moon and brought back the first lunar samples by any country's space program since the 1970s.

china space rocket tianhe
A Long March-2F carrier rocket, carrying the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft and a crew of three astronauts, launches to the Chinese space station, the Tianhe, from the Gobi Desert. Greg Baker/Getty