JIUQUAN SATELLITE LAUNCH CENTER, China – China launched three astronauts into space on Thursday night, bound for the country's homemade space station where they will live and work for half a year.

The Shenzhou-18 launch is the latest in a series rotating taikonauts, as China calls its space explorers (the Chinese word for "space" is taikong), through multi-month missions in orbit to conduct experiments and amass experience for eventual trips to the Moon and beyond.

The crewed missions are just one facet of an ambitious and fast-moving space program that international experts and officials worry could pose a threat to U.S. space superiority and military effectiveness on Earth.

Thursday's launch coincides with a visit to China by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who made stops in Shanghai and Beijing to advocate for a level playing field for U.S. businesses and press Beijing to stop supporting Russia's war effort against Ukraine.

At one minute before 9 p.m., Shenzhou-18's Long March 2F rocket lit up the night and tore skyward to cheers from onlookers at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in remote western China.

A day earlier, China unveiled the crew — commander Ye Guangfu, Li Cong and Li Guangsu. All are former fighter pilots, all born in the 1980s.

"I am thoroughly looking forward to the coming half-year of life in space. Embarking on this space expedition for the motherland is my greatest happiness," Li Guangsu told reporters the day before the flight.

The three taikonauts were not the only ones headed to the space station on Thursday. Several zebrafish were also slated to be part of the mission, according to the China Manned Space Agency. The crew will conduct more than 90 scientific experiments in orbit, including one that will try to establish a closed aquatic ecosystem with the minnows and a type of algae.

"We hope that through this research we can understand the interaction between these plants and animals in space, so that in the future when we understand it we can establish a large-scale ecosystem with animals, plants and microorganisms ... and create a systematic loop and possibly a closed system so that people can live in space for long periods," said Zhang Wei, a professor of technology and engineering at the Center for Space Utilization at the Chinese Academy of Science.

The Shenzhou-18 crew will also add protective shielding to exposed pipes, wires and other systems on the outside of the space station, officials said. The previous crew discovered damage from space debris to a solar panel wire that CMSA says affected the power supply. They conducted space walks to fix it, but future damage from space debris is possible.

China's space program has come a long way in a relatively short period time, according to international experts. That has raised persistent concerns in the U.S., most recently from the commander of the U.S. Space Command, Gen. Stephen Whiting.

On Wednesday, Whiting told reporters that China had tripled its number of intelligence gathering satellites over the past six years, and he called the country's space advances "cause for concern."

Whiting said China's strides in space were helping it improve the effectiveness of its military on Earth. He also noted that China is developing a range of counter-space weapons — devices that can disable or disrupt other countries' space assets.

Indeed, China's space program is an outgrowth of the People's Liberation Army, with the crewed portion still directly under the military. Even many of the firms that comprise a growing commercial space sector have links to state-owned enterprises in the military industrial complex.

Still, some experts say calling competition between China and the United States a new space race is of debatable value.

"To me, it looks more like a very long endurance, no-end-in-sight, marathon. And the marathon we are running here in space is really against ourselves," says Svetla Ben-Itzhak, a space security expert at Johns Hopkins University.

She notes that while China has been making fast strides, the U.S. retains clear advantages in space — including operating close to 70% of all space assets, including satellites.

That leadership position, coupled with a growing dependence on space and a lack of transparency on the part of China, has fueled a security dilemma, she says.

U.S. law bans NASA from using government money to cooperate with China, and Beijing has been excluded from the International Space Station — part of the reason it developed its own space station.

China's endemic secrecy was apparent during a government-organized visit to the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center for a small group of journalists.

Foreign reporters were housed in a town three hours by bus from the space center, while Chinese journalists stayed onsite. Trip details and schedules were withheld until the last minute. And plainclothes guards at the launch center kept a close eye on reporters to prevent them from wandering more than a few yards away from approved stops — or, at one location, aiming cameras at a camouflaged truck.

Yang Liwei, China's first astronaut, who went into space in 2003 aboard Shenzhou-5, says China would welcome more cooperation with the United States.

"China has always wanted to cooperate with the United States," he says. "In space exploration, and especially crewed space exploration, international cooperation is a major trend...[and] it's a common need of humanity."

Zhang Wei, the scientist, says China will keep plowing ahead regardless of worries about its program from abroad.

"That's not important. We just need to do our best. We don't really need to worry about whatever others think of us," he says.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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