China begins training astronauts to set foot on the moon before 2030

A new class of astronauts and the return of lunar soil samples precede Premier Li Qiang on his current diplomatic journey 
Diez aspirantes a astronautas acaban de ingresar en el Centro de Astronautas de Pekín para adquirir la condición de pilotos de las astronaves Shenzhou o responsables de ensayos y experimentos en el complejo orbital Tiangong - PHOTO/CCTV
Ten aspiring astronauts have just entered the Beijing Astronaut Centre to acquire the status of pilots of the Shenzhou spacecraft or responsible for tests and experiments at the Tiangong orbital complex - PHOTO/CCTV
  1. Priority for fighter pilots
  2. Three promotions trained in China and one in Russia

China's space activity is continuous, sweeping, success-filled and, on many occasions, synchronised with the actions taken by its high political authorities on the international diplomatic stage. 

An example of this coordination is the official trip that Chinese Premier Li Qiang has just made to New Zealand and Australia. It was preceded by the return to Earth of soil samples from the far side of the moon collected by the Chang'e-6 probe. It also coincided with the start of training for a new class of astronauts, which opens up the possibility of including candidates from third countries.

The diplomatic tour of Li Qiang - 64 years old and head of Xi Jinping's Executive since March 2023 - began on 13 June and concludes on 20 June in Malaysia, a nation that maintains relative independence in the disputes between Beijing and Washington. So the possibility of Malaysian military pilots being trained as astronauts in China is likely to be taken seriously by the Kuala Lumpur government of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, 76, who has been in power since November 2022. 

Lin Jian, uno de los portavoces del Ministerio chino de Exteriores, durante su comparecencia del 14 de junio para dar detalles del viaje de Qi Liang por Australia, Nueva Zelanda y Malasia - PHOTO/Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores de China 
Lin Jian, one of China's Foreign Ministry spokespersons, during his appearance on 14 June to give details of Qi Liang's trip to Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia - PHOTO/China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs

For the moment, there is no record of foreign aspirants being trained to travel to the Tiangong orbital complex, which China has been maintaining alone for the past three years at an average altitude of 380 kilometres. What has been revealed is that its Manned Spaceflight Organisation (CMS) has just begun training the fourth class of its Astronaut Corps.  

CMS director Hao Chun, in office since 2018, has already given the go-ahead to the ten new applicants who have just joined the Beijing Astronaut Centre. Eight are military aviators, who have been selected to acquire the skills that will equip them to fly the Shenzhou manned spacecraft or its later versions.  

Por su experiencia de vuelo, el proceso de selección de astronautas concede prioridad a los aviadores de combate como pilotos de las cápsulas tripuladas Shenzhou - PHOTO/CMS
Because of their flying experience, the astronaut selection process gives priority to combat aviators as pilots of the manned Shenzhou capsules - PHOTO/CMS

Priority for fighter pilots

The other two inductees will fulfil the role of payload specialists on board Tiangong, i.e. they are primarily responsible for conducting and documenting microgravity tests and experiments in biology, materials science and space medicine. For the first time and contrary to the usual secrecy, Beijing has disclosed that "both applicants come from the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macao". 

It has even revealed the name of one of them: Chief Inspector Lai Ka-ying of the Hong Kong Police, of whom no further details have so far been made public. Of the citizen of Macao, a former Portuguese colony located 70 kilometres southwest of Hong Kong and returned to China in December 1999, absolutely nothing is known, nor is anything else about the other members of the fourth class.

After joining the Astronaut Centre in Beijing, their training period lasted two years. Professor Huang Weifen heads the Manned Spaceflight Programme Office and the ten candidates must pass the study and training programme to learn how to fly the Shenzhou capsule or perform tasks on board the Tiangong space station. They will also be trained for missions on the future International Lunar Research Station that China is planning in cooperation with Russia. 

La profesora Huang Weifen está al frente de la Oficina del Programa de Vuelos Espaciales Tripulados, cuyo programa de estudios y prácticas deben superar quienes aspiran a convertirse en astronautas - PHOTO/CCTV
Professor Huang Weifen heads the Manned Spaceflight Programme Office, whose syllabus and internships must be passed by those aspiring to become astronauts - PHOTO/CCTV

In China, many thousands of volunteers apply for each call for astronauts, but only "a maximum of about 2,500" make it through the initial long filter. In the case of the fourth class, "the recruitment process began in October 2022," according to Chinese officials. 

The candidates must be between 25 and 35 years of age, between 1.60 and 1.72 metres tall and weigh no less than 55 and no more than 72 kilos. They must show no evidence of being addicted to tobacco or any other toxic substance harmful to health, let alone having abused alcoholic beverages.

Palacio Celestial en español, el complejo orbital Tiangong se mantiene desde hace tres años a una altura promedio de 380 kilómetros con una tripulación permanente de tres astronautas o temporal de siete - PHOTO/CMS
The Tiangong orbital complex has been maintained for three years at an average altitude of 380 kilometres with a permanent crew of three astronauts or a temporary crew of seven - PHOTO/CMS

Three promotions trained in China and one in Russia

In the case of military pilots in the air force, navy or army, they must have a minimum of 600 hours of flight time in aircraft, with priority given to combat, and an excellent record of service in the armed forces. Similar conditions are required for those coming from governmental organisations with air assets. 

Once admitted to the selection process, all must pass rigorous medical examinations, psychological and fatigue resistance tests, teamwork skills, as well as a high degree of sociability for long periods in the space environment.

Aunque la italiana Samantha Cristoforetti y el alemán Matthias Maurer han efectuado intercambios con sus homólogos chinos, la Agencia Espacial Europea ha descartado enviar astronautas a la estación espacial Tiangong - PHOTO/ESA
Although Italy's Samantha Cristoforetti and Germany's Matthias Maurer have had exchanges with their Chinese counterparts, the European Space Agency has ruled out sending astronauts to the Tiangong space station - PHOTO/ESA

Recruitment processes in China are very lengthy. For example, the recruitment of the third class dates back to May 2018 and only 18 candidates were admitted to the training course: seven pilots, seven flight engineers and four payload specialists. The second class was recruited in 2010 and graduated seven astronauts, including China's first two female astronauts. 

The first class dates back to 1998, when a total of 1,506 fighter pilots were assessed. Of these, 14 men passed the rigorous selection tests and were sent to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Moscow for training.

A la cuarta promoción de astronautas chinos se les va a capacitar para ejecutar misiones en la futura Estación Internacional de Investigación Lunar que China planea en cooperación con Rusia - PHOTO/CNSA
The fourth class of Chinese astronauts is to be trained to carry out missions on the future International Lunar Research Station that China is planning in cooperation with Russia - PHOTO/CNSA

One of the 14 was then Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Yang Liwei, who on 15 October 2023 became the first Chinese citizen to reach Earth orbit, out of a total of 22 who have so far done so. Now an air force general, he is the head of the Astronaut Corps, which, according to the China Manned Spaceflight Agency, is "composed of 14 men and two women who have already flown in space and remain on active duty".