Shenzhou 14 crew lands after six months on China's space station
December 4, 2022
— Three Chinese astronauts are safely back on Earth after six months working to complete their country's space station.
Taikonauts Chen Dong, Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe touched down Sunday (Dec. 4) on the Shenzhou 14 spacecraft at the Denfong landing site in the Gobi Desert within China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region. Descending under a parachute, the capsule reached the ground at about 7:10 a.m. EST (1210 GMT or 8:10 p.m. Beijing time).
The Shenzhou 14 landing marked the completion of China's third expedition to its Tiangong ("Heavenly Palace") space station and the first to end with a direct handover between crews. Shenzhou 15 astronauts Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu, who launched to orbiting complex on Nov. 29, spent five days working with Chen, Liu and Cai before the Shenzhou 14 trio departed for home.
"After living and working together with our replacements for nearly three days, the Shenzhou 14 crew has completed the handover work for the space station," said Chen during a brief change of command ceremony held on Friday. "Now I hand over the China Space Station's keys to you [Fei] and wish you complete success in fulfilling all future tasks."
Chen, Liu and Cai boarded Shenzhou 14 and undocked from Tiangong at 10:01 p.m. EST on Saturday (0301 GMT or 11:01 a.m. Beijing Time on Sunday).
The Shenzhou 14 mission was China's second longest mission to date, landing after 182 days, 9 hours and 26 minutes, just minutes short of the Shenzhou 13 record. Shenzhou 14, though, was a much busier mission than its predecessor, with the launch of two new laboratory modules and two resupply ships, as well as three spacewalks.
Chen, Liu and Cai were only on the station's Tianhe ("Harmony of the Heavens") core module for three weeks when Wentian, the first of two laboratory cabin modules, was launched and autonomously docked to Tianhe's forward-facing port on July 24. Two months later on Sept. 30, the lab undocked and completed China's first transposition, attaching itself to its permanent port on the starboard side of the station.
The China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) then launched the station's second and last module, Mengtian, on Oct. 31. The laboratory initially docked on Nov. 1 (Beijing Time) and then was repositioned to Tianhe's port side three days later. This transposition marked the formation of the space station's basic T-shape configuration, representing a key step toward the completion of complex, CMSA officials said at the time.
The Shenzhou 14 crew completed the interior and exterior outfitting of the Wentian module and began the interior set-up of the Mengtian lab.
Chen, Liu and Cai also oversaw the arrival of the Tianzhou 4 and 5 cargo vehicles and the departure of the Tianzhou 3 and 4 uncrewed craft.
The Shenzhou 14 crew performed three spacewalks (extravehicular activities or EVA). Chen and Liu conduced the first EVA on Sept. 1, which was the first to use the airlock on the Wentian module. Chen and Cai then went out on the second and third spacewalks on Sept. 17 and Nov. 17 to finish installing equipment on the outside of Wentian, including a bridge connecting the lab to the core module.
In addition to supporting the assembly of the Tiangong station, Chen, Liu and Cai also carried out science experiments and participated in physiological studies. The taikonauts also led a "classroom" presentation from orbit, connecting with students by video in Beijing and other cities around China.
Shenzhou 14 was the first spaceflight for Cai, 46, and the second for Chen, 43, and Liu, 44. Liu, who in 2012 became China's first woman in space, has now logged a total of 195 days in space. Chen has now spent 214 days off the planet, the most by any Chinese astronaut to date.
Shenzhou 14 was China's ninth human spaceflight since 2003 and the sixth to fly with a full crew of three.
China's Shenzhou 14 descent module is seen after landing in the Gobi Desert, within Inner Mongolia, on Dec. 4, 2022. (CCTV)
Shenzhou 14 crewmates Chen Dong, Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe are seen after landing from the Tiangong space station after spending 182 days in space, on Sunday, on Dec. 4, 2022. (Xinhua)
China's Tiangong space station as seen from the Shenzhou 14 spacecraft as it departed the complex to return to Earth. (CCTV)
China's Shenzhou 14 and Shenzhou 15 crews aboard the country's Tiangong space station on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. From left to right: Shenzhou 14 crewmates Cai Xuzhe, Chen Dong and Liu Yang and Shenzhou 15 crewmates Deng Qingming, Fei Junlong and Zhang Lu. (China Manned Space)