BEIJING – After China’s longest ever space mission, three astronauts safely returned to Earth Wednesday as China celebrated another successful step forward in the slow but steady space program that President Xi Jinping has dream off.
The 15-day mission, whose highlights included manual docking with an orbiting space station and a science lecture to 60 million students, concluded when the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft parachuted down to a sparsely populated area of Inner Mongolia.
The Shenzhou 10, whose name means “Sacred Vessel,” linked up with the Tiangong 1 (“Heavenly Palace”) space station in a “perfect” mission, Wang Zhaoyao, director of China’s manned space program, told a news conference in Beijing. Tiangong 1 has now completed its mission as an experimental prototype and will not be revisited. By 2020, Beijing plans to launch a permanently manned space station.
“As we celebrate our success, we also realize the fact that there is still a very large gap between China and the leading space countries in terms of manned space technology and capability,” said Wang. China’s space efforts remain a source of considerable pride in China.
The Chinese and U.S. space programs appear like “a classic tortoise and hare,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs, and an expert on the Chinese space program, at the U.S. Naval War College. “China has an incremental plan, step by step, they are in no hurry, but it’s also very ambitious,” she said.