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Rocket on pad, China ready to send 1st crew to space station

BEIJING (AP) – The rocket that will send the first crew members to live on China’s new orbiting space station has been moved to the launch pad ahead of the planned blast next week.

The three astronauts plan to spend three months on the space station with spacewalks, construction and maintenance work and scientific experiments.

The main section of the Tianhe or Heavenly Harmony station was launched into orbit on April 29, and a cargo hold sent up last month was transporting fuel, food and equipment to the station in preparation for the manned mission.

The long March 2F Y1

2 rocket with the Shenzhou 12 spacecraft was transferred to the launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China on Wednesday, the China Manned Space Engineering Office said in a brief statement. Its tentative launch date is next Wednesday.

The space agency is planning a total of 11 launches by the end of next year to deliver two laboratory modules to expand the 70-tonne station along with supplies and crew members. Next week’s launch will be the third of them, and the first of the four occupied missions planned.

China said in March that the astronauts training for the upcoming crew missions were a mix of space veterans and newcomers and included some women. It has so far sent 11 astronauts into space, all pilots from the ruling wing of the ruling Communist Party, the People’s Liberation Army.

The first Tianhe crew will be male, though women will be part of future crews at the station, according to Yang Liwei, who orbited Earth in China’s first occupied mission in 2003 and is now an official with the space agency.

Tianhe builds on the experience China has gained by operating two experimental space stations earlier in its increasingly ambitious space program. Chinese astronauts spent 33 days at the second of the previous stations, completing a spacewalk and teaching science courses sent to students across the country.

China landed a probe, Tianwen-1, on Mars last month carrying a rover, Zhurong. It has also brought back lunar samples, the first of any country’s space program since the 1970s, and landed a probe and rover on the moon’s less explored distant side.

Beijing does not participate in the International Space Station, largely due to US objections. Washington is wary of the secrecy of the Chinese program and its military relations.

Once completed, Tianhe will allow stays of up to six months equivalent to the much larger International Space Station.

The Chinese station is reportedly destined to be used for 15 years and can survive the ISS, which is nearing the end of its functional life.

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