Screen image captured at Beijing Aerospace Control Center on Sept. 17, 2022 shows Shenzhou-14 astronaut Chen Dong (R) and Cai Xuzhe both outside conducting extravehicular activities. (Xinhua/Guo Zhongzheng)
The Shenzhou-14 astronauts, currently in orbit for a six-month mission, will have the privilege of completing the construction of China's space station, the final goal of China's "three-step" human space program initiated 30 years ago.
The astronauts, who were sent into orbit on June 5, are waiting for the arrival of the Mengtian lab module, which is set to be launched in October. They will help assemble the module and enter it to carry out relevant work.
China's Tiangong space station is then expected to be complete, with a three-module configuration consisting of the core module Tianhe and two lab modules Wentian and Mengtian.
In 1992, when constructing a manned orbiting laboratory was still a flight of fancy for the Chinese people, China embarked on a "three-step" strategy to boost its human space program.
The first step was to send astronauts into space and ensure their safe return. The second step was developing advanced space flight techniques and technologies including extravehicular activity and orbital docking. The third step is to assemble and operate a permanent manned space station.
The construction of the space station is a milestone in China's space industry. To achieve this goal, China has been pushing space exploration boundaries on its own over the past three decades.
Seven years after the three-step space program was initiated, China launched its first experimental manned spacecraft Shenzhou-1, with no crew onboard, in November 1999. Three more spacecraft were sent into space between 2001 and 2002, before astronaut Yang Liwei entered space with Shenzhou-5 in October 2003, becoming the country's first "taikonaut" in orbit.
The country's first spacewalk was completed by Shenzhou-7 astronaut Zhai Zhigang in September 2008, and two female astronauts were sent into space -- Liu Yang in the Shenzhou-9 mission in 2012, and Wang Yaping in the Shenzhou-10 mission in June 2013. Wang also entered the space station and conducted an extravehicular spacewalk in the Shenzhou-13 mission from October 2021 to April 2022.
"In the past 30 years, we have overcome many technical difficulties, such as the technologies of shuttling between space and Earth, extravehicular activity, rendezvous and docking," said Yang Liwei.
So far, China has sent 14 astronauts into space.
SPACE LAB FOR ALL
"China plans to build the space station into a state-level space lab supporting long astronaut stays and large-scale scientific, technological and application experiments," said Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China's manned space program.
To accumulate experience, China launched experimental space labs Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 in 2011 and 2016, respectively. Tiangong-1 tested the technologies in rendezvous and docking between spacecraft, and Tiangong-2 carried out more than 60 space science experiments and technological tests.
China officially kicked off the in-orbit construction of its space station by launching the core module Tianhe in April 2021. More than a year later, it launched the space station's first lab module Wentian, which has further upgraded the space station's sci-tech experiment functions.
Wentian mainly focuses on the research of life science and biotechnology. Researchers have planned and deployed more than 10 research topics for Wentian in four fields -- space life science and biotechnology, microgravity fluid physics, space material science, and new space application technologies.
China's space program is aimed at facilitating global consensus on people's shared responsibility in utilizing outer space for peaceful purposes and safeguarding its security for the benefit of all humanity.
China has been actively promoting international cooperation on its space station, including working with the European Space Agency.
China also cooperates with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs to solicit scientific research projects on the space station from scientists around the world. It also promotes extensive international cooperation in astronaut selection and training.