Why the Shenzhou 11 landing is another leap forward for China

The space capsule carrying two taikonauts successfully landed in northern inner Mongolia on Friday, after 30 days in low Earth orbit docked at China's Tiangong 2 space station.

Li Gang/Xinhua/AP
Chinese taikonaut Zhai Zhigang waves after getting out of the Shenzhou-7 re-entry module following its landing in Siziwang Banner, in North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, on Sept. 28, 2008.

China’s space program reached a fresh milestone on Friday after its Shenzhou 11 space capsule safely landed in inner Mongolia with two astronauts aboard.

The landing of Shenzhou 11 capsule (translated as "Divine Vessel"), around 2:00 p.m. Beijing time, represents another step forward for the nation’s rapidly accelerating program, as it strives to catch up to space exploration giants the United States and Russia.

"China is building its own capability and their aim is clearly to become the world leader in space exploration," former NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao told NBC News in October, after the Shenzhou 11 capsule took off aboard a 191-foot-tall Long March-2F rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, on the edge of northern China's Gobi Desert.

Chinese state television showed footage of the capsule after it landed, but did not show the astronauts immediately emerging from the spacecraft. Onboard, they were undergoing a medical examination, and mission commander Zhang Youxia said the taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) were in "good condition."

"The Tiangong 2 and Shenzhou 11 flight duties were a complete success," Mr. Zhang said.

The taikonauts, Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong, returned after 30 days aboard the Tiangong 2 space laboratory (translated as "Heavenly Palace") in low Earth orbit, where they tested its habitability and conducted scientific and medical experiments.

The docking of Tiangong 2 came only 13 years after China launched its first-ever manned spaceflight. Tiangong 2 will stay in orbit and dock with China’s first cargo spacecraft.

China’s 9.5-ton Tiangong 2 space station replaced its predecessor, Tiangong 1, a few days after the nation’s space agency announced that the latter would crash back to Earth in 2017.

China’s push to become competitive in space is for military, commercial, and scientific reasons, but it is adamant that its pursuits are peaceful. In 2013, it landed its Jade Rabbit probe aboard the Chang'e 3 probe, the first “soft-landing” on the moon since Soviet Russia in 1976.

The Shenzhou 11 capsule’s most recent landing concludes China's sixth time sending a manned aircraft into space, which was its longest crewed mission as it pushes to explore deeper into space, The Christian Science Monitor reported last month.

The country also has plans to send a probe to Mars within the next decade.

"Becoming an aerospace power has always been a dream we've been striving for," President Xi Jinping said this year, on China’s first Space Day.

This report includes material from Reuters.

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