With 1st space station launch this spring, Chinese astronauts are training for flight

Chinese astronaut Wang Yaping spoke at an event held in 2017.
Chinese astronaut Wang Yaping spoke at an event held in 2017. (Image credit: K. Y. Cheng/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

Chinese astronauts are undergoing intense training for the first crewed missions to construct the nation's new space station, work that is expected to begin in the next few months.

At Wenchang, China's coastal launch center, teams are preparing a huge Long March 5 rocket to launch the first of three modules for the Chinese Space Station (CSS).

Meanwhile, astronauts are training for the first four missions to visit the module, the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) said on March 4 in Beijing. The training has included underwater sessions in specially designed space suits in a full-size mockup of the CSS, government footage shows.

Related: The latest news about China's space program

And China is preparing a Long March 2F to launch Shenzhou 12, the country's first crewed mission to the module, from the Jiuquan launch site in the Gobi Desert. 

China has not unveiled a timeline for the space-station missions, although it has 11 launches for the project planned in 2021 and 2022. The core module, named "Tianhe," meaning "Harmony of the Heavens," is expected to launch from Wenchang in April, based on previous Long March 5 preparations.

Tianzhou 2, a cargo and refuelling spacecraft, will then visit and dock with the 59-foot-long (18 meters), 24 tons (22 metric tons) Tianhe in low Earth orbit. Then, Shenzhou 12 will launch the first crew to the new facility. These two missions could both take place by midyear, although Chinese space authorities remain tight-lipped.

All told, the space station work will include three module launches, four crewed missions and four Tianzhou cargo spacecraft flights.

Huang Weifen, chief designer of China Astronaut Research and Training Center, told state media in October that astronauts had already been selected and confirmed for the four crewed missions for CSS construction. But their identities remain secret.

However, a recent video report from Xinhua looks into training being undertaken by Wang Yaping, who was a member of the Shenzhou 10 crew and became China's second woman in space.

The new footage shows Wang preparing for neutral buoyancy training as practice for extravehicular activities (EVAs), also known as spacewalks, which will be a crucial part of the space station construction and maintenance. The video also shows high-G centrifuge training.

The release hints that Wang could be on one of the first Shenzhou missions to the space station. Before 2020, China had 21 astronauts from two recruiting rounds, in 1998 and 2010; 11 flew during the country's six crewed space missions to date. 

CMSA announced on Oct. 1 that it had selected a third group of 18 astronauts for the nation's coming space station, consisting of 17 men and one woman. However, these individuals will not be selected for flight until they have completed basic astronaut and mission-specific training.

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Andrew Jones
Contributing Writer

Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for Space.com in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI.