China will send its first civilian astronaut into space as part of a crewed mission to the Tiangong space station on Tuesday, its Manned Space Agency announced, as Beijing pushes ahead with its extra-terrestrial ambitions.
The world’s second-largest economy has invested billions of dollars into its military-run space programme, trying to catch up with the United States and Russia after years of belatedly matching their milestones.
Until now, all Chinese astronauts sent into space have been part of the People’s Liberation Army.
“Payload expert Gui Haichao is a professor at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics,” China Manned Space Agency Spokesperson Lin Xiqiang told reporters Monday.
Gui will be “mainly responsible for the on-orbit operation of space science experimental payloads”, Lin said.
The commander is Jing Haipeng — on his fourth mission into space, according to state media — and the third crew member is engineer Zhu Yangzhu.
They are set to take off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwest China on Tuesday at 9:31 am (0131 GMT), the Manned Space Agency said.
Gui’s university, known as Beihang University in English, said he hailed from an “ordinary family” in western Yunnan province.
He “first felt the attraction of aerospace” listening to the news of China’s first man in space, Yang Liwei, on campus radio in 2003, the university said in a post on social media.
Under President Xi Jinping, plans for China’s “space dream” have been put into overdrive.
China is planning to build a base on the Moon and the country’s National Space Administration said it aims to launch a crewed lunar mission by 2029.
The final module of the T-shaped Tiangong — whose name means “heavenly palace” — successfully docked with the core structure last year.
The station carries a number of pieces of cutting-edge science equipment, state news agency Xinhua reported, including “the world’s first space-based cold atomic clock system”.
Once finished, Tiangong is expected to remain in low Earth orbit at between 400 and 450 kilometres (250 and 280 miles) above the planet for at least 10 years — realising an ambition to maintain a long-term human presence in space.
It will be constantly crewed by rotating teams of three astronauts, who will conduct scientific experiments and help test new technologies.
While China does not plan to use Tiangong for global cooperation on the scale of the International Space Station, Beijing said it is open to foreign collaboration.
It is not yet clear how extensive that cooperation will be.
China has been effectively excluded from the International Space Station since 2011, when the United States banned NASA from engaging with the country.