China is set to send the first three crew members to its new space station as it looks for foster international cooperation on the ambitious project.
Two of the astronauts flew in previous missions while the third is going to space for the first time, China Manned Space Agency Assistant Director Ji Qiming told reporters at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwestern China on Wednesday.
“Exploring the vast universe, developing space activities building a powerful space nation is our unremitting space dream,” Ji said.
The mission is China’s first crewed spaceflight in nearly five years.
The main section of the Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, station was launched into orbit on April 29.
Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng, and Liu Boming plan to live there for three months, conducting spacewalks, maintenance work and science experiments.
The astronauts will travel in the Shenzhou-12 spaceship launched by a Long March-2F Y12 rocket, which is set to blast off at 9.22am (1122 AEST) on Thursday.
The Long March rocket, with the Shenzhou craft attached, was reportedly moved to the launchpad at the Jiuquan satellite launch centre last week.
The mission is the third of 11 that are planned through the end of next year to build and maintain the station and send up crew members and supplies, and the station’s other two modules are due to be launched next year.
China has sent 11 astronauts into space since becoming only the third country to do so in 2003, all of them pilots from the People’s Liberation Army.
Beijing does not take part in the International Space Station (ISS), largely due to US concerns over the Chinese program’s secrecy and its military connections.
Despite that, foreign science missions and possibly foreign astronauts are expected to visit the Chinese station in future.
“Outer space is the common wealth of people all over the world, and exploring the universe is the shared cause of all mankind,” Ji said.
Once completed, the Tianhe will allow for stays of up to six months, similar to the much larger International Space Station.
The Chinese station is reportedly intended to be used for 15 years and may outlast the ISS, which is nearing the end of its functional lifespan.