After his first five months in the White House, President Joe Biden has concluded his first long transatlantic tour. He met in Brussels with his 29 European NATO allies and in Geneva with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, his main concern on the old continent.
But while the vast majority of Europe's dignitaries were listening to the words and gestures of Biden and Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping was finalising a new step in his policy of full strategic autonomy, confirming the Western unease about China that became apparent on 14 June at the Atlantic Alliance summit in Brussels.
The day after the end of talks between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin in their attempt to normalise diplomatic and military relations between the two countries, Xi Jinping drew the attention of both and even the whole world by sending the first tenants to the orbital complex that China has under construction around the Earth.
Liftoff of the Long March 2F launcher with the three astronauts on board took place in the early hours of Thursday, 17 June, from the Jiuquan space base in the middle of the Gobi Desert in northwest China. In just over six and a half hours, the Shenzhou-12 capsule with the trio of military pilots converted into astronauts was already docked to the Tianhe module of the Tiangong space station, which orbits our blue planet at about 400 kilometres above sea level.
Tianhe has been in orbit since 29 April. The centrepiece of China's future orbital complex, it is 16.6 metres long, 4.2 metres in diameter and has a habitable volume of 50 cubic metres. It is four times smaller than the International Space Station promoted by the United States, Russia and the European Space Agency, which is permanently inhabited and is currently occupied by 7 astronauts from expedition 65, of whom 3 are American, 2 Russian, 1 French and 1 Japanese.
The first crew already inhabiting Tianhe is a mix of veteran, less veteran and junior astronauts, all men. The mission commander is 56-year-old Nie Haisheng, who has participated in two previous missions in 2005 and 2013. He is joined by Liu Boming, 54, who flew into space in 2008 and led the first spacewalk. The third and youngest is Tang Hongbo, 45, who is starting his career in orbit.
Barring any technical hitches, the Beijing Space Agency expects Tianhe's first three Earth-viewing tenants to stay on board for just over three months. Their main goal is to break the Chinese record for time spent in space, which dates back to 2016 and stands at 33 days.
As they add up the number of days in orbit, their tasks include checking that the equipment installed in the orbital complex is working properly, including the systems for regenerating air and water, as well as a robotic arm to assist in unloading and docking material. Afterwards, two of them will go outside to check that everything is in good working order outside the module.
Once this has been done, the technicians at the Manned Flight Control Centre in Beijing will give their authorisation for them to begin scientific experiments. They will combine their work each day with long physical exercise sessions to avoid the loss of bone mass caused by weightlessness.
The current plan is for the Tianzhou-3 unmanned resupply spacecraft to visit in September with spare parts, fuel, food, and new equipment. A month later, the manned capsule Shenzhou-13 will dock with three relief astronauts, most likely two men and one woman -also a Chinese air force pilot- but whose names have not yet been released.
Construction of China's first operational space complex will be completed in 2022. Designed to be operational in 10 to 15 years, the complex will total around 90 tonnes when the Wentian and Mengtian modules are docked. One will be equipped with a powerful astronomical observation telescope, and the two will add new equipment fortechnological, medical, biotechnology, fluid physics and micro-gravity combustion experiments.
The flight on 17 June is the first Chinese manned space mission in five years. According to the Chinese space agency, its three astronauts have undergone 6,000 hours of training to get them used to spending a long time in micro-gravity conditions.
Beijing rejects that its interest in outer space is about competing with the United States in a new space race. It claims that it is building its space station to become an outpost from which to expand exploration of the Universe. Secondly, to make outer space an important area of international cooperation based on the peaceful use of new technologies. With the support of the United Nations, 17 nations, many of them developing nations, are scheduled to conduct experiments in the orbital complex.
Beijing accuses the US Senate of setting up legal obstacles to prevent the implementation of space cooperation initiatives between the two countries, but stresses that the US will not succeed in undermining the progress of its ambitious space programme.
Just remember that last May it managed to land a spacecraft and an all-terrain vehicle on Mars. That it had done the same before on the far side of the Moon. It has managed to bring samples of the lunar surface back to Earth. And now it has just inaugurated its first permanent manned space station, a testament to its proven space autonomy.