Chinese astronauts (from left to right) Ye Guangfu, Zhai Zhigang and Wang Yaping at a press conference in Jiuquan, China, on October 14, 2021. Photo provided by Xinhua news agency (Ju Zhenhua / Xinhua via AP)

BEIJING (AP) – China is preparing to send three astronauts to its space station for six months, a new feat for a program that has advanced rapidly in recent years.

It will be the most extensive manned mission in the history of the Chinese space program. The Long March-2F rocket, with the Shenzhou-13 spacecraft, will lift off Saturday morning from the Jiuquan Space Center, on the edge of the Gobi desert in northwest China.

The first crew of the space station, which spent 90 days in the Tianhe module, returned in mid-September.

The new crew will include two space travel veterans: pilot Zhai Zhigang, 55, who was the first Chinese to undertake a spacewalk, and Wang Yaping, 41, and the only woman on this trip. She conducted experiments and taught a science class while at one of China’s space experiment stations. For Ye Guangfu, 41, it will be his first time in space.

At a press conference, held from behind a glass window at the Jiuquan space base, Zhai admitted that the duration of this mission will be a challenge, but he declared himself confident that they will be able to fulfill it.

“After almost two years of training, we know each other well and we have an unspoken understanding. I believe that with the energy and wisdom of our team we will solve all difficulties, ”said Zhai.

Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov holds the record for the longest time in space – he spent 14 months on the Mir space station between 1994 and 1995.

The mission will continue the work started by the first crew, who conducted two spacewalks, deployed a 33-foot (10-meter) mechanical arm and spoke by video conference with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

The deputy director of China’s manned space missions, Lin Xiqiang, stated that the rocket is full of fuel and ready to take off.

“All systems on the Shenzhou-13 mission have undergone a full test. The crew is in good condition and preparations are in order, “Lin said at a press conference.

Chinese astronauts (from left to right) Ye Guangfu, Zhai Zhigang and Wang Yaping at a press conference in Jiuquan, China, on October 14, 2021. Photo provided by Xinhua news agency (Ju Zhenhua / Xinhua via AP)

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