China ready to launch first crew to new space station
The mission is China's first crewed spaceflight in nearly five years, and a matter of prestige for the government as it prepares to mark the 100th birthday of the ruling Communist Party on July 1 with a propaganda blitz.
A Long March-2F rocket carrying three astronauts in the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft is slated to lift off from a base in northwest China's Gobi desert on Thursday, according to experts with knowledge of the matter.
"It's a practical goal rather than a groundbreaking one."
Shenzhou-12 will dock with the main section of the Tiangong station, named Tianhe, which was placed in orbit on April 29. A cargo craft last month transported fuel, food and equipment for the crewed mission.
Another 11 missions are planned over the next year and a half to complete the construction of Tiangong in orbit, including the attachment of solar panels and two laboratory modules.
Three of those missions will carry astronauts for crew rotation.
"Keeping the station up and running smoothly involves much detailed and complicated work, as we saw on the International Space Station during its early days," said Chen Lan, an analyst at GoTaikonauts, which specialises in China's space programme.
"In fact, ISS construction was much slower" than the Chinese station.
Once completed, Tiangong will have a mass of around 90 tonnes and is expected to have at least a 10-year lifespan, according to the Chinese space agency.
Building a great nation
It has so far sent humans into space, probes to the Moon, and last month landed a rover on Mars -- a rare and prestigious space-faring achievement.
China's desire for a human outpost of its own in Earth orbit was fuelled by a US ban on its astronauts on the International Space Station, and it is now days away from placing the first crew on Tiangong.
State media reported in October last year that astronauts have been selected for all four crewed missions, but officials have been tight-lipped about their identities.
All 11 Chinese astronauts to date have been military pilots.
The International Space Station -- a collaboration between the United States, Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan -- is due for retirement after 2024, although NASA has said it could potentially remain functional beyond 2028.