Two Chinese astronauts began the country's longest crewed space mission yet on Monday, blasting off on a spacecraft for a 30-day stay on an experimental space station as China steadfastly moves toward becoming a space superpower, the AP reports. Ahead of the launch, one astronaut shouted, "We are ready! Please give instructions!" in footage shown prominently on Chinese TV. The commander in chief of the manned space program, Gen. Zhang Youxia, replied, "Proceed!" followed by blaring marching music as the astronauts boarded a bus to take them to the launch pad. China, Russia, and the US are the only countries that have independently launched humans into space, and while the others have more experience in manned space travel, China's military-backed program has made methodical progress in comparatively short time.
The Shenzhou 11 space capsule blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert in northern China at 7:30am local time aboard a Long March 2F carrier rocket. The Shenzhou 11 astronauts are 49-year-old Jing Haipeng, flying his third mission, and 37-year-old Chen Dong. The launch is China's sixth manned mission; the previous longest was about two weeks. For this mission, the astronauts will dock their spacecraft with the Tiangong-2 station within two days, conduct experiments in medicine and space-related tech, and test systems and processes in preparation for the launch of the station's core module in 2018. A fully functioning space station is on course to begin operating in six years and slated to run for at least a decade. China was excluded from the ISS mainly due to US concerns over the Chinese space program's strongly military nature. (Read more China stories.)