First Chinese Space Station Crew Handover Kicks Off

First Chinese Space Station Crew Handover Kicks Off

Three Chinese taikonauts lifted off from the Jiuquan Space Center this morning headed to the Tiangong-3 space station. They are joining three other taikonauts who have been aboard since July and for the first time will have a handover of operations from one crew to another. While routine on the International Space Station for the past 22 years and on Soviet space stations before that, it’s a first for China.

Shenzhou-15 launched at 10:08 am EST this morning and docked with Tiangong-3 at 4:42 pm EST.

The three-person crew is commanded by Fei Junlong, with Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu filling out the roster. Fei’s first flight was on Shenzhou-6 in 2005. Deng has been waiting more than two decades for his first chance to fly, having been chosen in China’s first group of taikonauts 24 years ago. Zhang was selected in the second group 12 years ago and also is a rookie.

Shenzhou-15 crew (L-R): Zhang Lu, Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming. Credit: Xinhua

It was nighttime at the launch site (11:08 pm Beijing Time) with the Moon shining brightly in the background.

Launch of Shenzhou-15, November 29, 2022, with the Moon in the background. Screengrab from CGTN.

China’s human spaceflight program has been proceeding at a measured pace since the first taikonaut launched in 2003. Although two small (8.5 metric ton) Tiangong space stations were launched in 2011 and 2016, they were visited only for short periods of time by a total of three crews.

The Chinese space station program is now finally hitting its stride with the three-module Tiangong-3. The first, Tianhe, which serves as crew quarters, was launched last year. It was recently joined by two scientific modules, Wentian and Mengtian. All together they have a mass of about 68 MT, far less than the 420 MT International Space Station, but a milestone for China.

The crew handover from Shenzhou-14 to Shenzhou-15 is another turning point.  They joyously greeted each other about 6:30 pm EST when the hatches opened.

Screengrab from CGTN.

The crew has a busy schedule ahead of them over the next six months. Three or four spacewalks are planned along with more than 40 scientific experiments.

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