China to Send Three Astronauts to Its Space Station in June after Successful Tianzhou-Tianhe Rendezvous

China’s cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-2 successfully docked with the space station’s key module Tianhe on Sunday, paving the way for a three-man crew of astronauts to board the station in June, according to state media.

Yang Liwei, China’s first space traveler, confirmed in an interview with government-run China Central Television that three astronauts will blast off next month for a three-month mission on China’s new space station, after the fully automated Tianzhou-2 was launched with supplies and fuel late Saturday.

A Long March 7 rocket, carrying the Tianzhou-2, lifted off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on the southern island of Hainan at 8:55 p.m. Beijing time on Saturday, according Xinhua which cited China Manned Space Agency in its report. The spacecraft, carrying 6.8 tons of cargo including food, space suits and laboratory equipment for the astronauts and propellant for the space station, autonomously rendezvoused and docked with the station’s key module Tianhe at 5:01 a.m. on Sunday.

The launch marks the first time that China’s space station cargo transportation system has come into use, Xinhua said.

The Tianhe, or “Heavenly Harmony,” was launched into orbit on April 29 and is the first module of China’s permanent space station Tiangong, which is still under construction and will take a total of 11 missions through the end of next year to become fully operational.

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The three “taikonauts” – a term referring to Chinese space travellers – will be sent into orbit by the spacecraft Shenzhou-12 sometime in June, along with two tons of propellant.

Yang, who now serves as deputy chief designer for China’s manned space program, added that the crew will be selected from the program’s two earliest groups of taikonauts. They will practice spacewalks and conduct repairs, maintenance and various scientific operations during their stay on the space station.

When asked whether women would be in the crew, Yang said, “on the Shenzhou-12 we don’t have them, but all the missions after that will have them.”

Next year, China will launch the two other core modules – Wentian and Mengtian – to complete the three-module space station Tiangong.

The Tiangong, China’s first self-developed space station, will rival the International Space Station (ISS) which is backed by countries including the US, Canada, Japan and Russia. Beijing has been excluded from the ISS due to a US law prohibiting cooperation with China in space, citing concerns over the Chinese program’s secrecy and military connections.