In a historic moment, the youngest-ever crew of Chinese astronauts has embarked on a mission to China’s space station, marking a significant milestone in the nation’s space exploration endeavors and paving the way for a new generation of “taikonauts” to propel China’s space ambitions forward.
The Shenzhou-17 spacecraft, aptly named the “Divine Vessel,” carried its three astronauts into space atop a Long March-2F rocket, lifting off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwest China.
Leading this six-month mission is former air force pilot Tang Hongbo, aged 48, who was part of the inaugural crewed mission to the space station in 2021. Tang’s return to the orbiting outpost, known as Tiangong or the “Celestial Palace” in Chinese, not only reinforces his experience but also sets a remarkable record for the shortest interval between two spaceflight missions by taikonauts, indicating a more rapid rotation of astronauts in the coming years.
Tang, a member of China’s second batch of astronauts in 2010, had to wait for over a decade before being selected for his first spaceflight in 2021. In contrast, his fellow Shenzhou-17 crew members, Tang Shengjie, 33, and Jiang Xinlin, 35, both embarking on their maiden space voyage, belong to China’s third batch of astronauts, selected in September 2020.
China has already initiated the selection process for its fourth batch of astronauts, targeting candidates with doctoral degrees in a wide array of disciplines, from biology, physics, and chemistry to biomedical engineering and astronomy. Notably, this selection process now welcomes applicants from Hong Kong and Macau for the first time.
While the first two batches of Chinese astronauts primarily comprised former air force pilots, like Tang, the space program’s evolving requirements are diversifying the astronaut pool.
China’s manned space program has signaled its intent to involve foreign astronauts in joint flights to Tiangong, in an effort to internationalize its space missions. However, Tiangong maintains distinct Chinese characteristics. Unlike the NASA-led International Space Station (ISS), where English serves as the working language, Tiangong operates solely in Chinese, making Chinese-language proficiency a crucial criterion for foreign participants.
Tiangong, completed in late 2022, can accommodate a maximum of three astronauts at an orbital altitude of up to 450 km (280 miles) and boasts an operational lifespan exceeding 15 years. This achievement underscores China’s growing confidence in its space endeavors, particularly after years of exclusion from the ISS program, owing to a U.S. legal ban on collaboration with NASA.
The Shenzhou-17 mission serves as the twelfth crewed mission since Yang Liwei’s historic solo spaceflight in October 2003, marking a pivotal chapter in China’s space exploration journey.