The country’s Manned Space Agency said that the first civilian astronaut would fly into space on Tuesday as part of a crewed mission to the Tiangong space station. Payload expert Gui Haichao is a professor at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the agency’s spokesperson Lin Xiqiang told reporters Monday. Until now, all Chinese astronauts sent into space have been members of the People’s Liberation Army.
He will join the Shenzhou-16 crewed spaceship and commander Jing Haipeng on his fourth journey into space and engineer Zhu Yangzhu. According to the agency, the mission will take off at 9.31 am (0131 GMT) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwest China.
China, which has invested billions of dollars into its military-run space program, hopes to land astronauts on the Moon by 2030. It completed the construction of its third and permanent space station, Tiangong, last year. The T—shaped station’s final module—meaning “heavenly palace” — successfully docked with the core structure in November.
China has also developed new rockets capable of carrying larger satellites into orbit. In addition, it is planning to build a more prominent space station called Tianzhou-1 in 2020. It is also developing a laser-powered robot that could one day be able to repair satellites in space.
Under President Xi Jinping, plans for China’s “space dream” have been put into overdrive as the world’s second-largest economy attempts to catch up with the United States and Russia after years of belatedly matching their milestones. China is also planning to build a base on the Moon, and its National Space Administration says it aims to launch a crewed lunar mission by 2029.
The Shenzhou-16 mission will see the three astronauts explore Tiangong’s modules and conduct scientific experiments in space. The crewed spaceship is expected to spend two weeks in orbit before returning to Earth on June 28.
The Shenzhou-16 mission will be the first time a civilian has been part of a Chinese space team. However, an American civilian, former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, will be on board the International Space Station (ISS) alongside two Saudi astronauts – Ali AlQarni and Rayyanah Barnawi – for the rest of the month. The trio are the first private astronauts to fly to the ISS since America was removed from the station in 2011 after it banned cooperation with China. The four are due to return on May 21. They will be the first to spend more than a week aboard the ISS this year.