The first astronauts for the new Chinese space station have set off on the country’s longest manned mission to date, a key step for Beijing to present itself as a major space power. The three are aboard a Long March-2F rocket to Tiangong station, where they will spend three months in a blast-off broadcast live on state TV.
The take-off took place at 9:22 am from the Jiuquan launch center in northwest China’s Gobi desert, with the rocket lifting up in clouds of smoke against a blue sky.
In a pre-launch ceremony, the three astronauts already wearing their spacesuits greeted a crowd of supporters including family members and space station personnel. It is the first manned Chinese mission in nearly five years.
The launch represents a matter of enormous prestige in China as Beijing prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party on July 1 with a massive propaganda campaign. To prepare for the mission, the crew underwent more than 6,000 hours of training.