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Chinese crew launches to new space station — including station’s first woman

Three astronauts blasted off for China’s longest-ever stay in space this week. They will live on China’s new space station, Tianhe, for six months, during which time they’ll perform spacewalks from the station’s core module. The three include Zhai Zhigang and Ye Guangfu, as well as Wang Yaping, who is the first woman to stay on the new space station.

Chinese astronauts Zhai Zhigang (C), Wang Yaping (R) and Ye Guangfu.
Chinese astronauts Zhai Zhigang (C), Wang Yaping (R), and Ye Guangfu will carry out the Shenzhou-13 spaceflight mission, and Zhai will be the commander, announced the China Manned Space Agency at a press conference on Oct. 14, 2021. Xinhua

They launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China’s Gobi Desert, on a Shenzhou-13 spacecraft carried by a Long March-2F carrier rocket. Liftoff was at 12:23 a.m. Beijing Time on Saturday, October 16, as reported by state news agency Xinhau.

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The crew arrived at the space station at 6:56 a.m. Beijing Time, with the spacecraft performing an automated docking procedure with the station’s core module. It docks alongside two cargo crafts also at the station: Tianzhou-2 and Tianzhou-3. The three astronauts entered the station at 9:58 a.m. Beijing Time.

During their stay, the crew will be testing out new technologies that will be used in the construction of the rest of the station, like the robotic arm for maneuvering hardware and equipment into place. They are scheduled to perform either two or three spacewalks (formally known as extravehicular activities, or EVAs) during their mission, and with Wang set to participate in these activities, she’ll become China’s first female spacewalker.

The inclusion of Wang on the crew has drawn support from current and former astronauts who wished her well on her historic mission, including Canadian Space Agency’s Chris Hadfield who tweeted his congratulations, and former NASA astronaut and International Space Station resident Cady Coleman, who told Wang in a video message that, “when you look out the window and you see the stars and you see the Earth, billions of women are looking out that window with you, including me.”

Congratulations Wang Yaping – fellow pilot, Colonel and astronaut, just beginning 6 months in space. Enjoy your spacewalk especially!

— Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) October 16, 2021

Wang is also known as a space educator, as she gave a televised science lecture for schoolchildren during a previous mission on the Shenzhou-10 spacecraft in 2013. She’ll be giving another lecture this mission as well, inviting students to submit their questions about space.