A three-man crew of astronauts will blast off in June for a three-month mission on China's new space station, according to a space official who was the country's first astronaut in orbit.
The plans for the station's first crew were confirmed to state television by Yang Liwei, the manned space program's deputy chief designer, as an automated spacecraft was launched with fuel and supplies for the Tianhe station.
The Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, is the third and largest space station launched by China's increasingly ambitious space program. Its core module was launched into orbit April 29.
The Shenzhou 12 capsule carrying the crew will be launched from the Jiuquan base in China's northwest next month, Yang said in comments broadcast Saturday by China Central Television.
They will practice spacewalks and conduct repairs and maintenance as well as scientific operations.
Yang, who orbited Earth in 2003, gave no details of the astronauts' identities or a flight date and said the crew will come from the program's two earliest groups of astronauts.
Asked whether women would be in the crew, Yang said, “on Shenzhou 12 we don't have them, but missions after that all will have them.”
The Tianzhou-2 spacecraft that docked with Tianhe on Sunday carried 6.8 tons of cargo including space suits, food and equipment for the astronauts and fuel for the station, according to the space program. The space agency plans a total of 11 launches through the end of next year to deliver two more modules for the 70-ton station, supplies and the crew.
According to a Reuters report earlier this month, the three-module space station will rival the International Space Station, which is backed by countries including the United States, Russia and Japan. China was barred from participating in the ISS by the United States.
Beijing doesn't participate in the International Space Station, largely due to U.S. objections. Washington is wary of the Chinese program's secrecy and its military connections.
The first cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-1 was sent to refuel a space lab - Tiangong-2 - three times in 2017, as a test of the technologies needed to support construction of the space station. Both Tiangong-2 and an earlier space lab Tiangong-1 have been deorbited in recent years, the Reuters report explains.
Next year, China will launch the two other core modules -- Wentian and Mengtian -- using the Long March 5B, its biggest and most powerful space transport vehicle. That rocket, capable of sending 25 tonnes of payload into low Earth orbit, was a source of worry earlier in May as it re-entered the atmosphere after delivering Tianhe into orbit.
China has sent 11 astronauts, including two women, into space beginning with Yang's flight in October 2003. The first female astronaut was Liu Yang in 2012. All of China's astronauts to date have been pilots from the ruling Communist Party's military wing, the People's Liberation Army.
Astronauts on the Tianhe will practice making spacewalks with two people outside the hull at one time, according to Yang. China's first spacewalk was made in 2008 by Zhai Zhigang outside the Shenzhou 7 capsule.
Also this month, the Chinese space program landed a probe, the Tianwen-1, on Mars carrying a rover, the Zhurong.
(With inputs from PTI, AP and Reuters)