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China launches youngest-ever astronaut crew on six-month mission to space station

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The youngest-ever crew of astronauts has embarked on a six-month mission to its space station, with plans to send humans to the Moon by 2030. The Shenzhou-17 crew, comprising three taikonauts, was launched into space from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China at 11:14 am (03:14 GMT) on Thursday.

Leading the mission is 48-year-old former air force pilot Tang Hongbo, a veteran of the People’s Liberation Army who was part of the first crewed mission to the space station, known as Tiangong, in 2021. Accompanying him are two first-time space travelers, Tang Shengjie, 33, and Jiang Xinlin, 35, forming an all-male crew with an average age of 38.

The successful launch, declared by a space program official approximately 15 minutes after liftoff, marks a significant stride in China’s relentless pursuit of its “space dream,” which has gained momentum under President Xi Jinping. The nation’s substantial investments in its military-run space program, aimed at catching up with the United States and Russia, have propelled it to become the world’s second-largest economy.

Tiangong, completed in late 2022, has the capacity to accommodate up to three astronauts at an orbital altitude of 450 km (280 miles) and boasts an operational lifespan of over 15 years. The Shenzhou-17 mission replaces the Shenzhou-16 crew, which arrived at Tiangong in May and is set to return to Earth on October 31.

China’s ultimate goal is to send a crewed mission to the Moon by 2030, and it has plans to establish a lunar base. Deputy director Lin reaffirmed this objective, assuring that the “goal of landing Chinese people on the moon by 2030 will be realized as scheduled.”

China has broadened its astronaut selection criteria, seeking candidates with doctoral degrees in fields ranging from biology, physics, and chemistry to biomedical engineering and astronomy. Notably, the selection process is now open to applicants from Hong Kong and Macau for the first time.

In a move towards international collaboration, China also intends to select and train foreign astronauts for joint flights to the Tiangong. Fluent Mandarin proficiency is a prerequisite, as it is the working language of the space station.

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