China launched the first crew of its new permanent space station into orbit Thursday morning.
Veteran astronauts Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming and rookie Tang Hongbo blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China aboard the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft.
A crowd of well-wishers bid the three astronauts farewell in an elaborate ceremony before they boarded a van to take them to the launch pad to board their spacecraft. The mission is China’s first manned space flight in five years.
The trio is expected to reach the first module of the station, dubbed Tianhe, or “Heavenly Harmony,” by Thursday evening, where they will spend the next three months outfitting the module with equipment and testing its various components.
This mission is the third of 11 needed to add more elements to the space station before it becomes fully operational next year. The new station is expected to remain operational for 10 years.
The station could outlast the U.S.-led International Space Station, which may be decommissioned after its funding expires in 2024. China has never sent astronauts to the ISS due to a U.S. law that effectively bars the space agency NASA from collaborating with China.
China is aggressively building up its space program as an example of its rising global stature and technological might. It became the third country to send a human into space in 2003, behind the United States and Russia, and has already operated two temporary experimental space stations with manned crews.
Just this year, it sent an unmanned probe into orbit around Mars, while another probe brought back the first samples from the moon in more than 40 years.