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China launches fifth manned space mission

A Shenzhou spacecraft carrying a crew of three, including China's second female astronaut, streaked into orbit Tuesday, heading for a prototype space station module for a planned two-week mission.

China's fifth manned spaceflight got under way at 5:38 a.m. EDT (5:38 p.m. local time) when a Long March-2F rocket thundered away from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the north central region of the country.

Strapped into the Shenzhou 10 command module were mission commander Nie Haisheng, 48, veteran of a 2005 flight; Zhang Xiaoguang, a 47-year-old Air Force pilot making his first space mission; and Wang Yaping, 33, a transport pilot and the second female astronaut in China's space corps.

The climb to space appeared to go smoothly, with live television from inside the command module showing all three crew members smiling and occasionally waving at the camera.

A bit less than 10 minutes after liftoff, the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft was released into its planned preliminary orbit and a few moments after that, live television from a camera mounted on the hull of the spacecraft showed the deployment of the solar array.

"The Shenzhou 10 spacecraft has entered its orbit," Zhang Youxia, chief commander of China's manned space engineering project, said through a translator. "Its crew is in a fine state. Now I announce the launch of the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft successful."

If all goes well, the ship will dock with the Tiangong 1 -- "Heavenly Palace" -- habitation module later this week.

The Shenzhou 10 mission "carries the space dream of the Chinese nation," President Xi Jinping told the crew before launch. "It will also show the Chinese passion to reach for the stars and reach into space. You have made all of us very proud."

Wu Ping, official spokeswoman for China's manned space program, said the crew planned to carry out two dockings with Tiangong 1, using both manual and automatic procedures.

"So far, we only conducted three automatic docking tests and a manual one," Wu told reporters before launch. "More tests are needed. We also need to further prove that our astronauts are fit for a longer stay in space and the orbiters are able to support their life and work."

Nie and his crewmates also plan to carry out a battery of experiments, and Wang will host a live broadcast from the Tiangong 1 module to show Chinese students what life is like in orbit.

"I'll demonstrate some physics experiments done in the space environment, Wang told CCTV. "As an astronaut, I'm also a learner, like those students. I think we'll learn together and have a great time in space."

Wu said the goal is to "bring the space program closer to the young generation, improve their understanding and attract their interests in our work."

The crew also hopes to enjoy a bit of down time in orbit, a luxury given the busy timelines and rigid safety policies followed by earlier crews.

"After finishing our daily duties, we'll have time to relax and do things, like appreciate the beautiful view of space and listen to some music," said Nie.

Added Zhang, "I will look at our beautiful planet, our beautiful homeland. I can find out whether it is possible to see the Yangtze River and Yellow River. I can take a look at the deep universe and shining stars. I feel very excited."

For her part, Wang said she was "very honored to have this chance to represent China in space and realize the Chinese dream. I'm confident that we can complete this mission successfully."

The Shenzhou 10 flight is the latest in a series of incremental steps laying the groundwork for assembly of a much larger Mir-class space station around the end of the decade, the stated goal of China's manned space program.

Following a deliberate, step-by-step approach to that long-term objective, China became the third nation, after the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia, to launch a manned spacecraft, in October 2003, when Yang Liwei blasted off aboard the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft.

Shenzhou 6, carrying two crew members, was successfully launched in October 2005 and Shenzhou 7, carrying a three-man crew, flew in September 2008.

In September 2011, Tiangong 1 was launched to serve as a target for rendezvous and docking missions. One month after the solar-powered module reached orbit, China launched the unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft, which carried out an automated rendezvous and televised docking with the research module two days later.

China followed that flight by launching two men and a woman on the Shenzhou 9 mission in June 2012. They carried out the program's first manned rendezvous and docking.

Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on China's space program, said the latest mission will continue "the plan," gathering the experience needed to build the larger station later this decade.

"After this, they supposedly will move on to Tiangong 2, which will allow them to keep a crew of three in orbit for 20 days," she told CBS News. "It's all building to part three, which is the 20-ton space station they will launch when they have the capability to launch it on the Long March 5 (rocket)."

Tiangong 1 measures 34 feet long, 11 feet wide and weighs about 8.5 tons. It features a pressurized experiment module where visiting crews can live and work and a "resource module" housing electrical, propulsion and life support systems.

The space station the Chinese hope to build later this decade will consist of four or more modules linked together.

For comparison, the International Space Station operated by the United States, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan, would cover a football field, weighs more than 450 tons and has a multi-module pressurized volume comparable to a 747 jumbo jet. It has been staffed with rotating crews of up to six astronauts and cosmonauts for the past 13 years.

  • William Harwood

    Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He covered 129 space shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia."