China has successfully flown astronauts to and from its new space station for the first time. Under the country’s space exploration program, astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo — or taikonauts, as China calls them — returned from a three-month stay on the country’s new Earth-orbiting station on Friday.
This was the nation’s most extended crewed mission, during which the taikonauts completed crucial tasks for the station’s long-term functioning.
“The universe is so vast, beautiful and fascinating. I was fortunate and happy to have the chance to fly up into the sky again and take a spacewalk on our own space station,” Liu Boming said, according to SpaceNews.
China’s Tiangong space station, where taikonauts lived, is the country’s third orbiting laboratory. Tiangong, like the ISS, is designed to be modular, with the bus-sized Tianhe base module launched in April and a cargo spacecraft launched in May.
In June, the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft carrying Haisheng, Boming, and Hongbo docked with the Tianhe module, kicking off a crucial three-month mission that breaks the previous record of 33 days in space set by the Chinese crew on the Shenzhou-11 mission in 2016.
“With China’s growing strength and the rising level of Chinese technology, I firmly believe there will even more astronauts who will set new records,” mission commander Nie told CCTV.
During the orbit, Haisheng, Boming, and Hongbo tested the Tianhe module’s life-support capabilities, including oxygen generation, the ability to filter out the carbon dioxide they exhale, radiation protection, and fluid circulation. They also carried out scientific experiments and two spacewalks to install new equipment on the Tianhe module.
The three taikonauts returned to their spaceship on Friday and undocked it from the Tianhe module. The spacecraft then used its engines to return to Earth, causing a high-speed plummet through the atmosphere. As it approached the earth, the capsule dropped a massive parachute and floated to a touchdown in the Mongolian desert, according to the national news agency Xinhua.
The crew landed in good health and were flown to a quarantine facility in Beijing, where they are having medical evaluations and will re-acclimate to gravity and the Earth environment using specialised meals, exercise routines, massage, and physical therapy.