China launches Shenzhou 15 for first space station direct handover
November 29, 2022
— China for the first time has launched astronauts into space before bringing home its prior crew from the country's space station.
Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu lifted off aboard the Shenzhou 15 spacecraft atop a Long March-2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China at 11:08 p.m. Beijing Time on Tuesday (10:08 a.m. EST or 1508 GMT). After autonomously docking with the Tiangong ("Heavenly Palace") space station, the astronauts will be welcomed aboard by the Shenzhou 14 crew of Chen Dong, Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe who have been in space since June.
"The following objectives are set for the mission," said Ji Qiming, assistant to the director of the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), during a press conference on Sunday (Nov. 27). "Verification of the space station's capability to support the crew handover [and] achieving the first crew handover on orbit."
The six Chinese astronauts are expected to spend five days together on board the station before Chen, Liu and Cai depart on their Shenzhou 14 spacecraft to return to Earth. Similar orbital handovers were conducted aboard Russia's Salyut and Mir space stations and continue on the International Space Station.
During their time alone on Tiangong, Fei, Deng and Zhang will complete the final steps to assemble the Chinese space station. The first component of the three-module complex, the Tianhe ("Harmony of the Heavens") core module, arrived in orbit in April 2021. Since then, two laboratory cabin modules have been added: Wentian in July of this year and Mengtian in October. Together, they create the T-shape layout of the Tiangong station.
The Shenzhou 15 crew members will install and commission the last equipment needed for the space station to operate, including 15 science experiment racks, and perform as many as four spacewalks to complete outfitting the exterior fo the Mengtian module.
They are also scheduled to initialize use of a cargo airlock to deploy and retrieve experiments mounted on the exterior fo the station.
In addition to assembly activities, Fei, Deng and Zhang will carry out more than 40 science experiments and technology demonstrations, said Ji. They will also perform maintenance as needed and verify that the station is operating nominally.
The astronauts will also oversee the arrival of the Tianzhou 6 cargo spacecraft and, at the end of their stay, conduct a second handover with the still-to-be-named Shenzhou 16 crew. The Shenzhou 15 crew is scheduled to return to the Denfong landing site in northern Mongolia in May 2023.
"The Shenzhou 15 mission is the last one in the construction phase of China's space station and the first one in the application and developments stage of the space station. It plays an important role in linking the past and future," said Ji.
Shenzhou 15 is Fei's second spaceflight and the first for Deng and Zhang.
"I am very proud to be on a mission again," said Fei during a pre-launch press conference. "I'm very excited to be stationed in China's space station."
Fei, who is the mission's commander, earlier launched on Shenzhou 6, China's second human spaceflight, in 2005. A 57-year-old military pilot, Fei in his free time "dabbles" in the fine arts.
Deng, 56, is the last active member of China's first astronaut class to make his first spaceflight. A fighter pilot in the People's Liberation Army Air Force, he previously served on the backup crews for Shenzhou 9, Shenzhou 10, Shenzhou 11 and Shenzhou 12.
"I was once depressed and even in tears, but I have never wavered, let alone given up," said Deng of his 24-year wait to be assigned to a mission. "I will cherish this opportunity to fly into space and fulfill my duty."
Zhang, 46, was selected with the second group of Chinese astronauts. Also a fighter pilot, he considered a career as a singer before taking up flying.
"Singing is my hobby, through which I can express my true feelings," said Zhang. "If I became a singer, I would never have had the chance to fly a plane, but [as] I chose to be a pilot, I could sing proudly while flying in the blue sky."
Shenzhou 15 is China's 10th human spaceflight and the seventh to include a crew of three. It is the fourth mission to bring astronauts to the Tiangong space station.
A Long March 2F rocket lifts off with the Shenzhou 15 spacecraft and astronauts Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Nov. 29, 2022. The crew will be the fourth to live on China's Tiangong space station. (CCTV)
Shenzhou 15 crew members (from left to right) Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu. (China Manned Space)
Shenzhou 14 crewmates (from left to right) Cai Xuzhe, Chen Dong and Liu Yang aboard the Tiangong station. (China Manned Space)