Tall as a 20-story building, a rocket carrying the Shenzhou 15 mission roared into the night sky of the Gobi Desert on Tuesday, carrying three astronauts toward a rendezvous with China’s just-completed space station.
The rocket launch was a split-screen event for China, the latest in a long series of technological achievements for the country, even as many of its citizens have been angrily lashing out in the streets against stringent pandemic controls.
The air shook as the huge white rocket leaped into a starry, bitterly cold night sky shortly before the setting of a waxing crescent moon. The expedition to the new space station is a milestone for China’s rapidly advancing space program. It is the first time a team of three astronauts already aboard the Tiangong outpost will be met by a crew arriving from Earth. The Chinese space station will now be continuously occupied, like the International Space Station, another marker laid down by China in its race to catch up with the United States and surpass it as the dominant power in space.
With a sustained presence in low-Earth orbit aboard Tiangong, Chinese space officials are preparing to put astronauts on the moon, which NASA also intends to revisit before the end of the decade as part of its Artemis program.
“It will not take a long time; we can achieve the goal of manned moon landing,” Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s crewed space program, said in an interview at the launch center. China has been developing a lunar lander, he added, without giving a date when it might be used.
The launch of Shenzhou 15 comes less than two weeks after NASA finally launched its Artemis I mission following many delays. That flight has put its uncrewed Orion capsule into orbit around the moon.
At the same time, Beijing has engaged in a charm offensive since the Group of 20 summit in Bali earlier this month, wooing European nations and developing countries in particular. That includes space exploration. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, emphasized that point in a letter on Nov. 21 to a United Nations symposium.
“China is willing to work with other countries to strengthen exchanges and cooperation, jointly explore the mysteries of the universe, make peaceful use of outer space, and promote space technology to better benefit the people of all countries in the world,” Mr. Xi wrote.
While European nations are working with the United States on the Artemis missions and the International Space Station, they so far have not expressed much interest in Tiangong. Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action said in a written reply to questions that Germany had no bilateral projects with China for its space station.
And while Germany and Italy each sent an astronaut four years ago to China’s Shandong Province for training to fly aboard a Shenzhou rocket, neither country has announced plans to send astronauts on a Chinese rocket. Some European researchers are involved in scientific experiments that will be carried to Tiangong, however, including a proposed high-energy cosmic radiation detector. Researchers from India, Peru, Mexico and Saudi Arabia have also received research opportunities on the Chinese space station through a United Nations program.
Officials in Europe have been wary of closer cooperation in space at a time of rising frictions over China’s human rights record and military buildup. They have asked China to share highly detailed information about its space operations, partly to ensure the safety of astronauts. But China, whose space program is closely linked to its military, has been wary of doing so.
That military connection was on display at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the desert. Camouflaged vehicles were visible in and around the base, and some signage referred not to Shenzhou civilian space rockets but to Dongfeng, the ballistic missiles used in China’s nuclear weapon arsenal.
Visitors approaching the launch center received a succession of short, automated warning messages on their mobile phones, starting about 50 miles away. The warnings stated that they had entered a military management zone where photography was strictly prohibited and violators of national security would be executed.
The first of these messages, in Chinese, provided a mobile phone number for reporting any sightings of foreigners or of suspicious activity, and concluded with a warning: “Those stealing secrets will surely be caught, and will be decapitated once caught! Everyone catch enemy spies, and make great contributions by seizing them!”
Ji Qiming, assistant director general of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, said at a news conference on Monday ahead of the Shenzhou 15 launch that China was preserving the heritage of the “two bombs one satellite” vision articulated by Mao. That program aimed to create an atomic bomb, an intercontinental ballistic missile to carry the bomb and a satellite from which to view the world below.
On Tuesday, foreign journalists were given uncommon access to the launch center, which began construction in 1958 and is usually out of bounds even for Chinese citizens.
Two journalists for The New York Times and a photographer from Kyodo News of Japan were allowed to attend the launch, as were a small group of journalists from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau. Visitors from Beijing and other cities were required to spend a week first in quarantine at a village hotel about 50 miles away, and to pass daily PCR tests. Foreign journalists paid for their travel, accommodation and quarantine.
The quarantine was part of elaborate precautions to prevent the Covid-19 virus from reaching the space center again. An outbreak last year briefly interrupted work at the site.
The base is 150 miles into the Gobi Desert from the nearest city, Jiayuguan in northern Gansu Province. On the highway from the city, an older China was still visible as a farmer’s small herd of Bactrian camels loped along, their double humps shaggy with dark-brown fur as winter approaches.
The region around the launch center has some of the world’s tallest stationary sand dunes, rising to a height of over 1,000 feet. Flat, gray gravel surrounds the base itself, which is home to an architectural mélange.
An immense vertical assembly building for rockets and modern administrative high-rises stand at the front of the base. Behind them are considerably older, low-rise brick buildings with prominent Communist Party insignia, and then rows of three-story apartment buildings with peeling white paint. The astronaut living and training quarters used before launches have been built in a fanciful Art Deco style with a curious resemblance to Tomorrowland at Disneyland.
The newer buildings at the site signal how fast China has been catching up with the West in space. Charles Bolden, who led NASA during the Obama administration, said that China’s ample budgets and long-term planning had given it an advantage over the United States, where Congress has been divided on space expenditures.
China, he said, moved as fast as “anybody would do if they had unlimited resources and didn’t have to go back” repeatedly to politicians for approval of expenditures.
Mr. Zhou of the crewed space agency said that China had spent money efficiently on its space program, and that its space station had cost not much more than $8 billion. Pay and the cost of living are low for the large community of rocket scientists living and working mostly in isolation at Jiuquan launch center, with even their internet communications with the rest of China restricted for national security reasons.
By contrast, NASA will spend $3 billion just this year on the International Space Station, which has cost more than $100 billion to build and maintain over the course of its life.
Three men were aboard the Shenzhou 15 when it lifted off: Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu. China has sent women into orbit on previous trips, but chose its oldest and most experienced team of astronauts to get the just-completed space station up and running in the next six months.
The trio stood at attention when introduced at a news conference, and delivered crisp military salutes. Mr. Fei, the spaceflight commander, first went into space in 2005 and is 57 years old.
“I am very proud and excited to be able to go to space again for my country,” he said.
Huang Weifen, chief designer of astronaut systems, said in an interview that China had added resistance exercise equipment and a broader menu for recent spaceflights, even including fresh fruits and vegetables.
Herbal treatments based on traditional Chinese medicine are carried aboard the space station and also used for medicated baths given to astronauts after their return to Earth, in an attempt to limit medical harm from prolonged stays in space, she added.
Mr. Zhou Jianping said that experiments to be done by the crew would involve using an extremely accurate atomic clock for gravity research and deploying a space telescope for ultraviolet studies of distant reaches of the universe.
“China’s aerospace industry is developing rapidly,” he said. “China is already a major aerospace power.”
Li You contributed research from Jiuquan.