Three Chinese taikonauts lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu Province for a 15-day mission that will take them to China's experimental lab module Tiangong 1, which orbits some 210 miles above Earth.
The mission is the longest yet for the Chinese human spaceflight program and the first truly operational – and final – mission for Tiangong 1. The crew will test new docking maneuvers as they arrive, then perform experiments and hold a live lecture from space for students in China.
The launch, which took place at 5:38 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, went flawlessly, with the crew reaching orbit about nine minutes later. If all goes well, the crew aboard the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft should reach the lab module on Thursday.
Shenzhou 10 represents China's fifth human-spaceflight mission in 10 years – a more methodical pace than the US and the former Soviet Union pursued during the Cold War.
During the past decade, China has sent 10 different taikonauts into space, including two women. Each mission has represented a progressive step over the previous one – first, with a John Glenn-like orbital mission that lasted nearly 21 hours and 23 minutes in 2003. Two years later, two taikonauts spent 5 days on orbit. In 2008, China launched its first three-person crew for a three-day mission that included the program's first spacewalk. Last year, Shenzhou 9 carried three crew members on a 13-day mission to Tiangong 1.
The program's near-term goal is to orbit a space station comparable to Russia's Mir space station, which over 10 years grew from a single module into a seven-module station. The Russians abandoned and deorbited Mir in 2001 in favor of its participation in the International Space Station project.
Tiangong 1 is the first step toward China's space-station goal. China's human-spaceflight plans call for launching a second, larger module later this year. Dubbed Tiangong 2, it is designed to host a crew of three for up to 20 days and has a second docking port to accept resupply missions. Tiangong 3 is slated for launch in 2015 as the core for the new station. A modified Tiangong 1 is expected to serve as an unmanned cargo carrier to support an eventual space station.
The launch comes as the US has embarked on yet another study aimed at recommending future directions for NASA's human spaceflight program. Last August, at the behest of Congress, the National Academies' Human Spaceflight Committee began holding a series of meetings to gather ideas from the public, aerospace specialists, and other stakeholders. The panel expects to present its final report next May.