China will launch the first crew of its new permanent space station into orbit on Thursday.  An official with the China Manned Space Agency announced Wednesday that veteran astronauts Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming and rookie Tang Hongbo will blast off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China aboard the Shenzhou-12. At age 56,  Nie Haisheng will become China’s oldest astronaut to fly to space. The trio will spend three months aboard the first module of the station, dubbed Tianhe, which translates to “Heavenly Harmony.” The mission, China’s first manned space flight in five years, is the third of 11 needed to add more elements to the space station before it becomes fully operational in 2022. The new station is expected to remain operational for 10 years.   The station could outlast the U.S.-led International Space Station, which may be decommissioned after its funding expires in 2024. China has never sent astronauts to the ISS due to a U.S. law that effectively bars the space agency NASA from collaborating with China.      China is aggressively building up its space program as an example of its rising global stature and technological might. It became the third country to send a human in space in 2003 behind the United States and Russia, and has already operated two temporary experimental space stations with manned crews.  Just this year, it sent an unmanned probe into orbit around Mars, while another probe brought back the first samples from the Moon in more than 40 years.  

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