The three Chinese astronauts landed on the core module of the Tiangong space station last Thursday for a three-month stay. They are its first long-term inhabitants as China looks set to become the only nation running its own space station by next year.
Xi thanked the three astronauts for their work in space on Wednesday morning, in a five-minute call reflecting the importance of the country’s space exploration project to the Chinese leadership.
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“You will spend three months in space and, while in space, your work and your life there will be in the hearts of the Chinese public,” he said. “Establishing our own space station is an important milestone and a significant contribution to humankind’s peaceful use of space.”
The three astronauts, flanked on either side by the Chinese flag and Communist Party flag, saluted Xi and thanked the country for its support. All three are party members.
China’s recent achievements in this highly symbolic field of scientific and technological exploration come as the party steps up celebrations to mark its centennial next Thursday.
The political significance of the landing was not lost on the astronauts in space. Veteran crew commander and long-time party member Nie Haisheng told a press conference last week before blast-off that China’s space exploration programme had “added a heroic chapter to the 100-year history of struggle of the party”.
Xi, who took office in 2012, has kept a close eye on the development of China’s space exploration programme.
In 2016, when Tiangong was still just a small space lab called Tiangong-2, Xi called two Chinese astronauts who were on a 33-day mission to test landing and transport capabilities and carry out in-orbit maintenance.
In an interview with state-run People’s Daily last week, crew commander Nie said this mission would be more taxing than the 2016 one because the space station was far bigger than the space lab.
Nie added that another challenge was Tiangong’s recently built robotic arm, which the head of the US Space Command has warned could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites.
“It is also the first time we will act in concert with the robotic arm – the arduousness and complexity of this is beyond imaginable,” Nie said.
Crew member Liu Boming said in the same interview that while in 2016 the objective was simply to see if the astronauts could leave their spacecraft safely, this time the astronauts would conduct two missions outside the station, each lasting several hours.
Tiangong, which means “heavenly palace”, will be the largest structure built and maintained by a single country in near-Earth orbit and has been touted as a beacon of China’s space programme.
Tiangong will rival the International Space Station, backed by the US, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan.
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This article Xi Jinping hails China space station astronauts in long-distance call first appeared on South China Morning Post