Shenzhou-15 Lands, Completing China’s First Space Station Crew Rotation

Shenzhou-15 Lands, Completing China’s First Space Station Crew Rotation

China’s three-man Shenzhou-15 crew landed today after six months in space. Last November they replaced the Shenzhou- 14 crew, the first handover of operations from one crew to another in China’s history, and now they have been replaced by Shenzhou-16. China has reached this stage in its human spaceflight program decades after first the Soviet Union and then the International Space Station partnership demonstrated this capability, but is a milestone for  China nonetheless.

Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu launched on November 29, 2022 and docked about 6.5 hours later. Over the past 186 days, they initiated Tiangong 3’s operational phase, which included four spacewalks, the most for any Chinese crew. Litttle is known publicly about the spacewalks and only the first was announced in advance.

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

China’s human spaceflight program has proceeded at a slow-but-steady pace since the first Chinese astronaut, or taikonaut, was launched in 2003. Sometimes years would pass between flights. Between 2003 and 2021 there were only six crewed flights.

That began to change in April 2021 with the launch of Tianhe, the first of three modules for the Tiangong-3 space station. The other two modules, Wentian and Mengtian, were launched in July and October 2022.

During the construction phase, the modules were occupied periodically by the Shenzhou-12 and Shenzhou-13 crews, but it was only last November, when the Shenzhou-14 crew was replaced by Shenzhou-15, that operations were directly handed over from one crew to another. That has just been repeated with Shenzhou-15 and Shenzhou-16, which launched earlier this week.

Tiangong-3 has two docking ports so a Shenzhou crew spacecraft can be docked at one and a Tianzhou cargo resupply ship at the other, which enables long-term or permanent space station occupancy. The Soviet Union was the first country to do this beginning with the Salyut 6 space station in January 1978, followed by Salyut 7 and Mir. Russia joined the United States, Japan, Canada and Europe in building the International Space Station, which has been permanently occupied by international crews since November 2000.

The Shenzhou-15 crew landed at the Dongfeng landing site in the Gobi Desert in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region at about 6:33 pm EDT (22:33 UTC/6:33 am June 4 local time in China).

Shenzhou-15 descending under parachute, June 3, 2023 EDT. Screengrab.


Shenzhou-15 after landing at the Dongfeng landing site in the Gobi desert, June 3, 2023 EDT. Screengrab.


Shenzhou-15 capsule on its side after landing, June 3, 2023 EDT. Screengrab.


Note: China did not announce a landing time, but watching the CGTN broadcast produced the estimated 2235 UTC used in the original version of this article.  We updated it after Bob Christy @OrbitalFocus tweeted a more detailed calculation of 2233 UTC after he analyzed the CGTN footage.

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