And We Have Lift Off! A Historic Family Day at China’s Space City

The usually secretive facility became a virtual family picnic as engineers celebrated the launch of Shenzhou-9 and the country's first female astronaut.

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AFP / Getty Images

The Shenzhou-9, China's fourth manned space mission, blasts off from the Jiuquan space base, northwest China's Gansu province in the remote Gobi desert on June 16, 2012.

The Beijing Space City campus on the outskirts of China’s capital, where much of the design work on China’s space craft is done, is normally highly secretive. Indeed, a poster on the wall of a conference room advises: “There’s nothing people won’t do to steal state secrets — you should provide watertight security!” But on Saturday the hermetic base threw open its doors to family and friends of the facility’s engineers for a viewing party of the launch of China’s latest manned space mission, the Shenzhou-9 space capsule.

With chattering children running excitedly between tables piled high with snack food and drinks, the festive atmosphere was more like a family picnic than a political event. But for all the revelry at Space City, there is no doubting the significance of the Shenzhou-9 launch for China’s long-term space exploration plans. Since first putting a man in space in 2003, China has implemented an ambitious space program designed to catapult it into a dominant role in the global space race within just a few years. The country aims to have a fully operational manned space station in orbit by 2020, and leaders have spoken openly about the possibility of manned missions to the moon within the coming years.

The Shenzhou 9 mission will include a number of technically challenging procedures, including China’s first manned space docking with the orbiting Tiangong-1 lab module. That docking will also be performed manually, adding an extra layer of complexity but preparing future Chinese astronauts to be “drivers rather than passengers,” according to reports in state media. They will then spend another 10 to 11 days in the lab module conducting experiments before returning to Earth around the 29th of June.

The launch has also captured public attention globally because Shenzhou-9’s three-person crew includes China’s first female astronaut – former air force pilot Liu Yang. At Space City, attendees watched Shenzhou-9 blast off on a live feed being beamed in from the launch facility in the distant deserts of Inner Mongolia. There were boisterous celebrations when the craft lifted off and again a few minutes later when it entered orbit, as Liu let go of the pen she was holding and watched it float around the cabin.

On the capsule wall behind Liu and the other astronauts was  a poster bearing the Chinese character “Fu”, a traditional Chinese blessing meaning “good fortune.” The engineers at Space City hope that Liu’s mission will be a good omen for China’s long-term space plans.