Beijing is counting down to the first crewed mission in nearly five years in a new space race.
China will send three men into space on Thursday on its first manned mission in nearly five years, as part of an ambitious plan to complete a space station by the end of next year.
China is expected to launch the Shenzhou-12 at 9:22 a.m. (01:22 a.m. GMT) from Jiuquan, northwestern Gansu province, an official with the Chinese Space Agency said on Wednesday.
The astronauts are Nie Haisheng, 56, Liu Boming, 54, and Tang Hongbo, 45, Ji Qiming, deputy director of the Chinese Manned Space Agency, told reporters. Nie will be the oldest person China has sent to space.
Shenzhou-12, which means “Divine Vessel,” will be the third of 11 missions needed to complete the Chinese space station by 2022.
At least four of the 11 planned missions will be manned, capable of sending up to 12 Chinese astronauts into space.
China began construction of the space station this year with the launch of Tianhe – the first and largest of the station’s three modules – in late April.
The crew of the Shenzhou-12 will live on the Tianhe, which means “Harmony of the heavens”, a cylinder 16.6 meters (55 feet) long and 4.2 meters (14 feet) in diameter, for three months.
The oldest Chinese astronaut at the head of the mission
Nie, a native of central Hubei province and a former air force pilot, will lead the mission.
The Shenzhou-12 will be Nie’s third spacewalk, following the Shenzhou-6 mission in 2005 and the Shenzhou-10 mission in 2013, according to the Xinhua news agency.
This will be Liu’s second mission to space, his first being the Shenzhou-7 mission in 2008, which featured a historic spacewalk. This will be Tang’s first trip to space.
There are also three reserve astronauts for the mission.
China’s last crewed flight mission dates back to 2016, when two men – Chen Dong and Jing Haipeng – were sent via the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft to Tiangong-2, a prototype of the space station where they stayed over late for about a month.
Although no women are scheduled for the Shenzhou-12 mission, they are expected to participate in each subsequent mission, according to the Global Times.
Two women, Liu Yang and Wang Yaping, were selected in 2011 from the second group of Chinese astronauts, after the first group of 14 men in the mid-1990s. Liu was the first Chinese woman in space in 2012, while Wang was the youngest, at 33, in 2013.
Chinese astronauts have had a relatively low international profile.
A US law banning NASA from any connection with China means its astronauts have not been to the more than two-decade-old International Space Station, which has been visited by more than 240 men and women of various nationalities.
China has stepped up its space program to compete with the West, including the United States.
Beijing’s goal is for the country to become a great space power by 2030, transform space into the new frontier of its rivalry with the United States.
In May, it became the second country to put a rover on Mars, two years after the first spacecraft landed on the far side of the moon.