China’s Shenzhou 16 mission blasted off from deep in the Gobi Desert, showcasing the space program’s rapid progress at a time when the US is trying to thwart Beijing’s development of sophisticated industries such as semiconductors.
A Long March-2F rocket sending three astronauts to the Chinese space station took off from the military-controlled Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Tuesday morning, state media reported. The launch marked the 11th crewed mission for China as it narrows the gap in a space race with the US.
China has notched up an impressive series of achievements in recent years, becoming the first nation to land a craft on the far side of the moon in 2019 and landing a rover on Mars in 2021. It’s also the only country operating its own space station, built after the US objected to Chinese participation in the multinational International Space Station.
The country plans to send Chinese astronauts to the moon by 2030, China Manned Space Agency official Lin Xiqiang said at a briefing on Monday.
In the days before Shenzhou 16’s takeoff, the government allowed foreign reporters to visit the launch center, shoot video and take photos, an unusual gesture given the area is controlled by the People’s Liberation Army. Underscoring the PLA’s role in the Chinese space program, a billboard at the entrance to the center shows President Xi Jinping with the slogan “Dream of Space, Dream of a Strong Military.”
“China has achieved operational success when it comes to its space achievements and is now on a path to commercialise space,” said Namrata Goswami, an independent scholar on space policy and author of a book on great-power competition in space.
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“The audience is not just the United States but also partner nations along the Belt and Road Initiative,” Goswami said.
In the latest iteration of Shenzhou, which means “Divine Craft,” the three Chinese astronauts are expected to rendezvous with three others who have been living aboard the Tiangong space station, part of the government’s plans to have it occupied continuously.