China began its longest manned space mission with the launch of the Shenzhou-10 rocket, state television showed, as the country steps up an ambitious exploration program symbolizing its growing power.
The rocket ascended above the Jiuquan space centre in the Gobi Desert trailing a vast column of flame.
The three astronauts on board — who include Wang Yaping, 33, China’s second woman in space — saluted cameras mounted inside their capsule and moments later the boosters detached from the rocket.
The crew are due to spend 15 days in orbit.
Beijing sees the multi-billion-dollar space program as a marker of its rising global stature and mounting technical expertise, as well as the ruling Communist Party’s success in turning around the fortunes of the once poverty-stricken nation.
The three crew, in white space suits, emerged from a building and greeted crowds of well-wishers waving flags and artificial flowers, some in traditional costumes, before boarding a bus for transfer to the launch pad.
Wang will teach lessons to schoolchildren via video link during the mission, officials said.
“We are all students in facing the vast universe. We are looking forward to joining our young friends to learn and explore the mystical and beautiful universe,” she told a press conference on Monday.
Wang, who trained as a transport pilot in the air force, has 1,600 hours of flying experience including dispelling clouds for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
She is a major in the military and a member of the Communist Party.