Xi Jinping Hails China's Space Pioneers As Astronauts Salute From Orbit

Three astronauts saluted China's President Xi Jinping from low Earth orbit on Wednesday after the crew of former air force pilots became the first to occupy the Chinese space station.

Xi praised the pioneering taikonauts—Nie Haisheng, 56, Liu Boming, 54, and Tang Hongbo, 45—who lifted off into space on the Shenzhou-12 ("Divine Vessel") craft at 9:22 a.m. Beijing time on June 17.

They docked with the space station's core module Tianhe ("Harmony of the Heavens") just over nine hours later.

Docking success! About 6 hours after launch, #Shenzhou12 has successfully docked with #Tiangong space station. Astronauts will enter the space station later. We’ll keep up updated. HD Full process: https://t.co/QPtRTjj90f pic.twitter.com/bXDbuXzIZO

— CNSA Watcher (@CNSAWatcher) June 17, 2021

Their successful launch from the Gobi Desert, in China's northwestern Gansu province, was the country's first manned mission to space in five years. It was also a significant milestone in Xi's tenure as leader, coming ahead of the Communist Party's 100-year anniversary on July 1 and the Party Congress in 2022, when he hopes to be re-elected.

During the video-link conversation, the astronauts saluted a smiling Xi, who greeted them in return. Speaking from the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center, the Chinese leader inquired after their health and working conditions, before each crew member gave a brief report.

Chinese Astronauts Greet Xi Jinping From Space
Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) watches on as astronauts (L-R) Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming salute him from the Chinese space station's Tianhe core module during a video link event with the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center in Beijing, China, on June 23, 2021. CCTV

Nie, the veteran of the group, said China now had a "permanent home operating in orbit," referring to the under-assembly Tiangong ("Heavenly Palace") station, which is expected to outlive the International Space Station.

Liu, on his second space outing, said the trio would verify technologies on board Tianhe and conduct two extravehicular activities, as well as robotic arm operations. They are the first to test fully the living quarters and life-support systems on Tianhe, which measures 55 feet in length and 14 feet in diameter.

The core module of the Chinese space station is "cozy and comfortable," reported Tang, who is on his first space mission.

"The construction of the space station is a milestone for China's space industry, which will make pioneering contributions to humanity's peaceful use of space," Xi told the three men.

"You represent those who are striving for China's space industry in the new era. I hope you will work closely with each other and complete the upcoming tasks," he said.

"We await your triumphant return in Beijing," Xi added.

Senior party and military leaders were also present at the event, according to China's state broadcaster CCTV.

Its report showed the astronauts saluting Xi once more before the Chinese leader waved at the crew and the applauding crowd in the auditorium.

Chinese Astronauts Greet Xi Jinping From Space
Chinese President Xi Jinping waves at astronauts Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming, who are on the Chinese space station's Tianhe core module, during a video link event at the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center in Beijing, China, on June 23, 2021. CCTV

If all goes according to plan, the current mission will be the longest in China's history, lasting three months. Its previous record was 33 days.

Tianhe, launched on April 29, is the central module of the T-shaped Tiangong station, which will be completed following the launches of modules Wentian ("Quest for Heavens") and Mengtian ("Dreaming of Heavens") in the second and third quarters of next year.

Eleven launches in total will be required to build Tiangong: four manned missions, four cargo trips and the three module launches.

China's Tianzhou-3 ("Heavenly Ship") cargo launch is scheduled for this September, with the crew of Shenzhou-13 expected to visit Tianhe in October.

When Tiangong is completed at the end of 2022, China plans to maintain a permanent presence in space.

Chinese Astronauts Greet Xi Jinping From Space
"Taikonauts" (L-R) Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming salute President Xi Jinping from the Tianhe module of the Chinese space station, during a video link conversation with the country's leader, who was at the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center on June 23. CCTV