Under bright blue morning skies, China launched its first crewed space mission in five years Thursday, sending three science-minded military pilots rocketing to a new orbiting station they're expected to reach around mid-afternoon. The astronauts, already wearing their spacesuits, were seen off by space officials, other uniformed military personnel, and a crowd of children waving flowers and flags and singing patriotic songs, the AP reports. The three gave final waves to a crowd of people waving flags, then entered the elevator to take them to the spaceship at the Jiuquan launch center in northwestern China. The astronauts are traveling in the Shenzhou-12 spaceship launched by a Long March-2F Y12 rocket that blasted off shortly after the target time of 9:22am with near-perfect visibility at the launch center on the edge of the Gobi Desert.
The two veteran astronauts and a newcomer making his first space flight are scheduled to stay three months in the Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, conducting experiments, testing equipment, and preparing the station for expansion before two laboratory modules are launched next year. The rocket dropped its boosters about two minutes into the flight followed by the coiling surrounding Shenzhou-12 at the top of the rocket. After about 10 minutes it separated from the rocket's upper section, extended its solar panels, and shortly afterward entered orbit. About a half-dozen adjustments will take place over the next four to six hours to line up the spaceship for docking with the Tianhe at about 4pm. The mission is the third of 11 planned through next year to add the additional sections to the station and send up crews and supplies. A fresh three-member crew and a cargo ship with supplies will be sent in three months. (Read more China space program stories.)