First Chinese Crew Rotation Complete with Shenzhou-14’s Landing

First Chinese Crew Rotation Complete with Shenzhou-14’s Landing

China’s Shenzhou-14 crew landed in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region today completing a 183-day mission. It is the first Chinese crew to hand over operations of a space station, Tiangong-3, to their replacements on Shenzhou-15. China declared the mission a complete success and Shenzhou-14 “the busiest crew.”

Chen Dong, Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe landed at about 7:15 am EST (8:15 pm in China) after undocking from Tiangong-3 last night at 10:01 pm EST (Sunday, 11:01 am in China).

Shenzhou-14 crew before launch, L-R: Cai Xuzhe, Chen Dong, Liu Yang. Credit: Xinhua

This was the second spaceflight for mission commander Chen, who visited one of China’s earlier and much smaller space stations, Tiangong-2, in 2016. He now holds China’s record for longest cumulative time in space, 214 days. The world record holder is Russia’s Gennady Padalka who accumulated 878 days over five spaceflights. Peggy Whitson holds the U.S. record at 666 days over three flights.

Recovery team assisting the Shenzhou-14 crew minutes after landing at the Dongfeng Landing Site in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, December 4, 2022. Screengrab

Liu was also on her second flight. She was China’s first female astronaut in 2012 on the Shenzhou-9 mission that docked with China’s first space station, Tiangong-1. That was a 13-day mission so she now has 96 days in space.

Cai was a rookie. He and Chen conducted two spacewalks, while Chen and Liu did a third, a record for China. They also oversaw the addition of the Wentian and Mengtian laboratory modules to the Tianhe core module, completing assembly of Tiangong-3. With the regular arrival and departure of Tianzhou cargo ships and the successful crew exchange with Shenzhou-15, the space station now appears fully operational.

China’s first space station change-of-command ceremony from the Shenzhou-14 to Shenzhou-15 crew, December 2, 2022. Screengrab.

The Soviet Union was the first country to use crew exchanges and regular deliveries by cargo spacecraft to keep their space stations permanently occupied beginning with Salyut 6 in the 1980s and continuing with Salyut 7 and Mir. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia joined the U.S., Japan, Canada and Europe in the International Space Station program. ISS has been permanently occupied for more than 22 years.

China’s human spaceflight program has proceeded at a measured pace since launching the first taikonaut, Yang Liwei, in October 2003. After 19 years, it is finally hitting its stride.

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