The Shenzhou-15 mission, during which its crew will live and work on the space station for six months, also offered the nation a rare moment to celebrate, at a time of widespread unhappiness over China’s stifling zero-COVID-19 policies while its economy hits the brakes amid uncertainties at home and abroad.
“Long live the motherland!” many Chinese netizens wrote on social media.
Leading the Shenzhou-15 mission was Fei Junlong, 57, who hailed from China’s first batch of astronaut trainees in the late 1990s. His previous visit to space was 17 years ago as commander of China’s second-ever crewed spaceflight.
Fei was accompanied by Deng Qingming (56), who had been an astronaut for 24 years but had never been selected for a mission before Shenzhou-15. Zhang Lu (46), a former pilot in the air force, joined them.
During the space station’s operation over the next decade, China is expected to launch two crewed missions to the orbiting outpost each year.
The next batch of “taikonauts”, coined from the Chinese word for space, to step foot on the station, in 2023, will be picked from the third generation of astronauts with scientific background. All of the astronauts who stepped on the station in the 1990s and 2000s were former pilots from air force.
China is now accepting applications for its fourth batch of doctoral candidates. They are looking for candidates with doctoral degrees from biology, physics, chemistry, biomedical engineering, and astronomy.
For the first-time, Hong Kong and Macau applicants can apply to be considered.
While still in its infancy compared with NASA’s technologies and experience, China’s space programme has come far since the mid-20th century when the country’s late leader Mao Zedong lamented that China could not even launch a potato into orbit.