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Chinese astronauts return to Earth after three months on a space station. Photo: Xinhua

China’s Tiangong astronauts return with vision of ‘new heights’ in space travel

  • Mission commander tells his crew ‘real gold fears no fire’ moments before their successful re-entry after 90 days in space
  • Their journey completes another milestone in China’s ambitious space programme

China’s returning “space heroes” emerged from their capsule and waved to the waiting cameras on Friday, touching back down on Earth after 90 days on the country’s Tiangong space station.

At the landing site, Commander Nie Haisheng told state broadcaster CCTV that more Chinese astronauts would follow to “set new records and reach new heights” in space travel.

The three astronauts, who spent a record three months on the Tiangong, landed safely, completing a milestone journey in the country’s ambitious space programme.

“We all feel great,” Nie told the Beijing command centre before leaving the capsule.


Chinese astronauts return to Earth in re-entry capsule from Tiangong space station

Chinese astronauts return to Earth in re-entry capsule from Tiangong space station

Quoting a Chinese proverb, Nie joked with his fellow astronauts that “real gold fears no fire” before their capsule was engulfed in flames on re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, an event broadcast live by CCTV.

The China Manned Space ­Agency said the re-entry capsule landed at the designated Dongfeng landing site in Inner Mongolia, northern China, at 1.34pm on Friday.

The astronauts’ safe return to Earth was the top trending topic on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo, with 290 million hits in the first half-hour after landing. Thousands of people posted messages of support, welcoming back the country’s three “space heroes”.


Liu Boming, who turned 55 on Friday, said it was “the most unforgettable birthday” of his life. “The universe is vast and beautiful, and it is fascinating to fly to the sky. Taking a spacewalk on our own space station in China is my fortune, giving me great happiness,” he said.

Tang Hongbo, the youngest of the crew, said he wanted to tell his parents “Dad, Mum, I’m back!” because he had missed his family and friends.

The ground rescue team’s helicopter arrived at the landing site within minutes of the touchdown, with the “Warrior” all-terrain vehicles close behind. After an inspection of the capsule’s condition, the vehicle was opened and medical personnel conducted a preliminary health check. Each of the crew was assigned two doctors.

The astronauts (from left) Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming wave before boarding their spacecraft on June 17. Photo: AFP

This was the astronauts’ first trip to and from the space station. During their stay, they conducted tests, performed maintenance and went on spacewalks.

A source from the Jiuquan satellite launch centre said the astronauts had also brought back samples from the experiments they conducted. “While all the data was transmitted before they left the space station, we still need the samples for further analysis,” the source said.


He said that after medical check-ups and quarantine, the astronauts would meet the next batch of astronauts who are expected to head for the Tiangong as part of the Shenzhou 13 mission, scheduled for early October.

“The returning pioneers will pass on their experience and brief the successors on the things to note. This is very valuable first-hand experience for those who will go next.”


How China’s space programme went from launching satellites to building its own space station

How China’s space programme went from launching satellites to building its own space station

Their return came just two days after President Xi Jinping inspected a People’s Liberation Army space base in northwest China’s Shaanxi province on Wednesday and called for better protection of China’s space assets.


The astronauts flew to Beijing on Friday evening for further medical checks and observation.

Huang Weifen, chief designer of the Astronaut Centre of China, told CCTV that the astronauts would need about six months to adjust back to life on Earth.

“[We] cannot rush and must do it scientifically,” Huang said. “We must do all we can for their protection, and do it step by step.


“In about half a year, we expect the astronauts can return to normal life … but we will continue to monitor and observe their condition for at least a year.”

The return mission began at around 2pm on Thursday after the astronauts completed radial rendezvous tests, laying a technical foundation for the manned missions that will follow.

At about 12.45pm on Friday the orbit module detached from the return capsule. The propulsion compartment was released at about 1.10pm before the capsule entered the Earth’s atmosphere.


The capsule came back from 393km (245 miles) above the Earth at a speed of 7.9km (4.9 miles) per second, enduring extreme heat and violent shocks that left deep scars on its surface.

Chinese astronauts work on station’s robotic arm in second spacewalk

To lighten the load on the parachute, the special resistant bottom of the capsule was detached at around 10km above the ground.

Sun Jun, deputy director of the Shenzhou flight control centre, toldCCTV that the BeiDou global positioning system enabled the centre to use new predictive guidance systems for better control of the re-entry capsule as it entered the communication blackout zone.

The blackout during the spacecraft’s re-entry is the result of extreme heat, which causes an envelope of ionised air around the craft. On this return trip, the blackout period lasted for about six minutes.

How China’s space station could help power astronauts to Mars

Chinese diplomats rushed to praise the three astronauts’ achievement on Western social media platforms. In response to a tweet from foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying announcing the landing, Zhang Heqing, cultural counsellor at China’s embassy in Pakistan, tweeted: “So proud of my motherland, great China! So happy to live in the new era. We’re fully confident to move ahead for the rejuvenation of our nation.”

Quentin Parker, head of the Laboratory for Space Research at the University of Hong Kong, said the “flawless” return showed China’s technological ability and the great potential for the world’s space powers to work together.

“This is an extremely exciting time. The successful return of Shenzhou 12 in China happened right after SpaceX sent four civilians to orbit. Can you imagine what we can accomplish if all the world’s space powers can come together?”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Back to Earth but eyes on ‘new heights’