Three Chinese astronauts returned to Earth after a record three-month stay aboard the Chinese space station under construction, marking a milestone in the Asian giant’s ambitious program to conquer space.
Suspended from a red and white striped parachute, the capsule made landfall on Friday at 1:34 PM (0534 GMT) in the Gobi Desert, in northwest China, said the country’s space agency (CMSA).
The three men had taken off in mid-June from the Jiuquan launch center in northwest China, near the landing point. Its mission, Shenzhou-12, was the longest ever carried out in space by the Chinese.
“It feels really good to be back” on Earth, astronaut Tang Hongbo, 45, sat in a large white chair shortly after leaving the capsule, told CCTV state broadcaster.
“Dad, Mom, I’m back! I’m in good shape and in a good mood!” Hongbo continued jovially, while his two older crewmates, Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming, showed a little more weariness.
Huang Weifen, a senior space program official, told CCTV that the three men will now go into quarantine.
“This measure is taken to protect them”, “not because of COVID-19” but because “their immunity has weakened” due to their long stay in space, Weifen said.
CMSA congratulated itself on the complete success of the mission, which marks a new stage in China’s ambitious space program, which already has probes on the Moon and Mars and plans to send men to the Moon by 2030.
“The Shenzhou-12 mission achieved its objective of activating the new station and putting it into operation,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told AFP in the United States.
“This paves the way for future regular missions to the station. It was very important and really paramount to achieving success at the beginning,” says Chen Lan, an analyst at GoTaikonauts.com, specializing in the Chinese space program.
CCTV broadcast live the return of the three astronauts with impressive images from a camera on board the capsule, showing the flight at full speed over the ocher-colored desert expanse.
Aboard Tianhe (“Heavenly Harmony”), the only one of the three space station modules already in space, astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo performed numerous tasks.
The crew made several sorties into space, carried out maintenance operations and also installed equipment to make the space station operational, the first element of which was launched in April.