China will send three men into space on Thursday in its first crewed mission in nearly five years, part of an ambitious plan to complete a space station by the end of next year.
China is expected to launch the Shenzhou-12 at 9:22am (01:22 GMT) on Thursday from Jiuquan in northwestern Gansu province, an official at the China Manned Space Agency said on Wednesday.
The astronauts are Nie Haisheng, 56, Liu Boming, 54, and Tang Hongbo, 45, Ji Qiming, assistant director at the China Manned Space Agency, told reporters. Nie will be the oldest person that China has sent into space.
Shenzhou-12, meaning “Divine Vessel”, will be the third of 11 missions needed to complete China’s space station by 2022.
At least four of the 11 planned missions will be manned, possibly putting up to 12 Chinese astronauts into space.
China began construction of the space station this year with the launch of Tianhe – the first and largest of the station’s three modules – in late April.
The Shenzhou-12 crew will live on the Tianhe, which means “Harmony of the Heavens”, a cylinder 16.6 metres (55 feet) long and 4.2 metres (14 feet) in diameter, for three months.
Oldest Chinese astronaut to lead mission
Nie, who comes from central Hubei province and is a former air force pilot, will lead the mission.
The Shenzhou-12 will be Nie’s third space outing, after the Shenzhou-6 mission in 2005 and the Shenzhou-10 mission in 2013, according to the Xinhua news agency.
It will be Liu’s second mission to space, his first being the Shenzhou-7 mission in 2008, which featured a landmark spacewalk. It will be Tang’s first journey in space.
There are also three backup astronauts for the mission.
China’s last crewed flight mission was in 2016 when two men – Chen Dong and Jing Haipeng – were sent via the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft to Tiangong-2, a prototype of the space station where they later stayed for about a month.
While no women are scheduled for the Shenzhou-12 mission, they are expected to participate in every following mission, according to the Global Times.
Two women, Liu Yang and Wang Yaping, were selected in 2011 among China’s second group of astronauts, after the first batch of 14 men in the mid-1990s. Liu was China’s first woman in space in 2012, while Wang was the youngest, at 33, in 2013.
Chinese astronauts have had a relatively low international profile.
A United States law banning NASA from any connection with China means its astronauts have not been to the more-than-two-decade-old International Space Station, which has been visited by more than 240 men and women of various nationalities.
China has been accelerating its space programme to rival the West, including the United States.
Beijing’s aim is for the country to become a major spacefaring power by 2030, turning space into the newest frontier of its rivalry with the US.
In May, it became the second country to put a rover on Mars, two years after landing the first spacecraft on the far side of the moon.