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Jiuquan Cosmodrome: Chinese rocket before launch to the country's space station

Photo: Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

Sometimes a small gesture is enough. Then not only experts understand: something is different here than usual, this is a special moment. On Monday, the Chinese space agency CMSA (China Manned Space Agency) unveiled the next crew for a flight to the country's space station at the Jiuquan spaceport in the Gobi Desert. And while two of the three men presented also gave a military salute, the third simply waved friendly to the camera.

Gui Haichao of Beijing University of Aeronautics and Space will be the first civilian to fly into space as part of China's space activities. As a payload specialist, he will be responsible for the scientific experiments on board the Tiangong space station. Gui had been presented in 2020 as a candidate for use in space. Until now, it had been reserved for members of the Chinese People's Liberation Army alone to launch for space missions.

In addition to Gui, two military men will once again be on board for the upcoming mission: space veteran Jing Haipeng and newcomer Zhu Yangzhu. The group is scheduled to launch from Jiuquan on Tuesday morning as part of the Shenzhou-16 mission. In space, the trio is to replace three colleagues who have lived and worked in the "Tiangong" station for six months.

Commander Jing said the mission marks the beginning of "a new phase of application and development" in China's space program. We firmly believe that the spring of Chinese space exploration has arrived." In fact, China's space program is gradually gaining momentum. It was only 20 years ago that Beijing became the third space power ever to send humans into space for the first time. Meanwhile, the country operates a permanently occupied space station, the only orbital complex besides the International Space Station (ISS).

No involvement in the International Space Station

China is not allowed to participate in the ISS because of a decision by the US Congress. At the time, the background to this was fears that the space program was deeply rooted in the People's Liberation Army. As a result, China had also decided to go its own way in space. Although there are scientific collaborations with other states on individual points, and there is also a political expression of will to cooperate with international partners – but overall, Beijing's program is characterized by a high degree of independence: A robot landing on the far side of the moon and on Mars has already taken place, and an asteroid mission is planned.

And this path of self-reliance will soon lead the country's astronauts to the surface of the moon. There were also new announcements on this point on Monday. CMSA Vice President Lin Xiqiang said his country was preparing a "short stay on the lunar surface and joint exploration by humans and robots."

According to reports, a moon landing will take place before 2030. Designs for a – possibly completely reusable – lander already exist.

The announcement of the Chinese is also exciting because it can be read as evidence of a race to the moon. The U.S. has announced its intention to land on Earth's satellite again by 2025. International partners are also involved in the Artemis programme, including the European Space Agency (ESA).

"We're going to put a European on the moon," NASA chief Bill Nelson told SPIEGEL last year. The ex-astronaut sees the country and China in a new "race to the stars". The fact is that the schedules of the Americans for their planned moon landings are likely to be postponed for technical and financial reasons. And so "after 2025" (USA, realistically) and "before 2030" (China, announced) could coincide in time.

Americans – still – with significantly higher budgets

But it is also a fact that the space budget of the Americans is currently about three times as large as that of the Chinese. So if you really want to talk about a race, then there is at least one favorite at the moment, the USA, but this does not diminish the Chinese merits.

According to a report by the U.S. Department of Defense, the Chinese could establish themselves as the dominant space power "economically, diplomatically and militarily" by 2045. Russia has expressed interest in becoming part of China's lunar program.

In the long term, both sides are planning to set up permanent stations at the Moon's south pole, where water ice from permanently shadowed crater areas could be used for the extraction of raw materials. The publicly announced landing zones of the Americans and Chinese in the area overlap.