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China launched 3 astronauts bound for the country's homemade space station

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

China sent three people into space last night. They did that at a launch pad about 1,000 miles from here. And many observers of the launch counted down the final seconds.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET LAUNCHING)

INSKEEP: The launch came just as the American secretary of state was visiting this country, and our China correspondent John Ruwitch was watching. Hi there, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how'd it go?

RUWITCH: It was truly amazing. I mean, that sound that you heard right there was the Long March 2F rocket lifting off from this remote base out in the Gobi Desert. It's the Shenzhou-18 mission, which is China's 13th manned or crewed space launch since they started doing this thing 21 years ago. It's taking three astronauts. They call them taikonauts here because the word for space in Chinese is taikong.

It's taking these three guys up to China's homemade space station, where they're going to overlap for a few days with a crew that's already been on the space station since October 26 of last year. That crew is going to then head back to Earth, and the new crew is going to stay up there for a half a year.

INSKEEP: This wasn't planned to coincide with a visit by the American secretary of state Tony Blinken, was it?

RUWITCH: Probably not. These things are planned years in advance. It takes a lot of preparation for a rocket launch like this. The crewed missions are really the highest-profile, kind of the most prestigious part of China's space program, which experts say is very ambitious and fast-moving. Last year, China had more than 60 orbital launches, which was a record. This year, they're going to have around a hundred. And this is one of the two launches that they have that are going to have crews in them.

INSKEEP: One hundred launches in a year. It sounds like they're moving pretty fast.

RUWITCH: Yes. You know, it's interesting, these crewed rocket launches have become almost routine. They're good at them. I saw a very well-oiled machine in operation over the past couple of days out here in the desert. You know, with everything from the unveiling of the astronauts to the public to their short walk to board a bus with flag-waving fans, family members and colleagues flanking them, to the wall-to-wall news coverage, you know, the symbolism is very potent around this.

It's a way to boost national pride at home. It's also to show the world that China is a force. And if history is a guide, you know, these things really do matter among major powers that are competing with one another.

INSKEEP: Well, as you're talking, John, I'm reminded that the head of the U.S. space force recently said that China's space development was a cause for concern for the United States.

RUWITCH: Yes, that was General Stephen Whiting. He was speaking the other day. He said China's ability to gather intelligence from space has grown very quickly, which is worrying. He says that's helping to boost the effectiveness of its ground and naval forces. And he also said China is developing a range of counterspace weapons. Those are things that can blind or destroy or interfere with other countries' satellites or space assets.

China's space program has indeed, you know, long been linked to its military, and that's been a persistent source of concern in the U.S., and especially so these days as competition takes on a harsher edge. Yesterday, though, at the launch center, I put this question to Yang Liwei. He was the first Chinese astronaut into space. He's a national hero. He went up on the Shenzhou-5 mission in 2003. And by the way, he says he hopes he can still go back.

YANG LIWEI: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: Yang told me that instead of competing in space, the U.S. and China should be cooperating. He said, actually, cooperation between countries in space exploration is a necessity. But the reality, Steve, is that that's probably not going to happen anytime soon, especially in this geopolitical environment. The U.S., by the way, has legislation banning NASA from using government funds to cooperate with China.

INSKEEP: Well, it sounds like the Chinese have plenty to do on their own.

RUWITCH: They do. You know, this crew is going to go up for about six months and be on the space station doing experiments and maintenance. They'll be replaced by a fresh crew. And all of this paves the way toward a bigger goal, which is putting tykonauts on the moon by 2030.

INSKEEP: NPR's John Ruwitch. Thanks so much.

RUWITCH: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
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