China Astronauts
Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng (right) and Chen Dong wave before the launch of Shenzhou-11 manned spacecraft, in Jiuquan, China, Oct. 17, 2016. China Daily/via Reuters

China’s first astronaut to have gone into space, and currently the deputy director of China Manned Space Engineering Office, Yang Liwei, said the country was going to start recruiting astronauts from among civilians, after having picked them from the Chinese air force pilots until now. Yang was speaking Saturday on the sidelines of the first session of the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Astronauts (called taikonauts in China, a portmanteau of the Chinese word “taikong” meaning outer space and astronaut) for future missions could be picked from the industrial sector, research institutions and universities, Yang said, adding that women would also be encouraged to apply, according to local media reports.

“We invite more passionate young people to join the recruitment process to help transform our nation into a space powerhouse,” Yang said, People’s Daily Online reported.

A total of 14 people, all of them men, were in the first group of taikonauts that was put together in the late 1990s. Yang was part of that group, and went into space in 2003, when China became the third nation in the world to put a human in space without assistance from another country. A second group of seven taikonauts was assembled in 2010, and included two women. In all, 11 Chinese astronauts have gone into space as part of six separate missions, starting with Shenzhou 5 in 2003.

The Asian powerhouse, now the world’s second-largest economy, has a very ambitious space program which has been advancing rapidly in the last two decades. Among other things, it is working on Tiangong (it means “heavenly palace” in Chinese), its own space laboratory to rival the existing International Space Station (ISS). And for that especially, it makes sense the new recruits aren’t only pilots but also include maintenance engineers and payload specialists.

Tiangong’s assembly has not gone according to China’s plans. The first module, called Tiangong-1, was launched and reached orbit, but subsequently malfunctioned and is expected to fall to Earth sometime in 2018. Tiangong-2, in orbit since September 2016, is still in orbit, and is expected to be joined by Tianhe-1 module later in 2018. This module is like the Zvezda Service Module on the ISS and would serve as the crew’s main living quarters and control center. Tianzhou-1, China’s first cargo spacecraft with refueling ability, successfully docked with Tiangong-2 in April 2017.

The other snag in China’s space plans is the country’s heavy-lift rocket, the Long March-5. With a 28-ton payload capacity for low-Earth orbit, the rocket was successfully launched in November 2016, but the second attempt at lift-off in July 2017 was a failure, and it hasn’t been tried again since. Long March-5 is crucial to many of the country’s future plans for space exploration, including launching the Chang’e-5 lunar probe for the surface of the moon (originally scheduled for November 2017), and a Mars rover as well (whose date is not decided, but was expected to be in the mid-2020s).

In anticipation of future crewed missions to space, China has also conducted a number of simulations on Earth to mimic the isolated, self-contained conditions that would face astronauts on a long-term mission. Volunteers in these experiments, the most recent of which lasted for a year (split in two batches) included both men and women, and was called Yuegong-1 (“lunar palace-1”). China also plans to become the first nation to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon. It already landed a rover — Jade Rabbit — on the lunar surface, but it stopped functioning soon after.