Spaceflight Insider

17 humans are in orbit after Shenzhou 16 launch

There are six people aboard the Tiangong space station, left, and 11 people aboard the International Space Station. Not pictured is NASA astronaut Frank Rubio (aboard the ISS). Credit: CMS (left) and NASA (right)

There are six people aboard the Tiangong space station, left, and 11 people aboard the International Space Station. Not pictured is NASA astronaut Frank Rubio (aboard the ISS). Credit: CMS (left) and NASA (right)

With the launch of the three-person Shenzhou 16 spacecraft to China’s Tiangong space station, there are now 17 people living in low Earth orbit — a new spaceflight record.

Jing Haipeng, Zhu Yangzhu and Gui Haichao were aboard the Shenzhou 16 spacecraft as it launched atop a Long March 2F rocket at 9:31 p.m. EDT May 29 (01:31 UTC May 30), 2023, from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China. The trio reached Tiangong in about seven hours to join the three people already aboard the outpost — Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu — who arrived in late November 2022 aboard Shenzhou 15.

The Shenzhou 16 crew is replacing the Shenzhou 15 crew during a brief handover period lasting less than a week. Shenzhou 15 is set to depart the outpost and land in China as early as June 3. Shenzhou 16 will remain at Tiangong until November 2023.

China's Shenzhou 16 spacecraft launches to the Tiangong space station with three Chinese astronauts. Credit: CMS

China’s Shenzhou 16 spacecraft launches to the Tiangong space station with three Chinese astronauts. Credit: CMS

Tiangong’s temporary population increase from three to six, albeit briefly, comes at the tail end of the International Space Station’s current population swell from seven people to 11 during the private Axiom-2 Crew Dragon mission. This brought the total number of people in orbit at the same time (on two different space stations) to 17 people.

The seven-person ISS Expedition 69 crew includes Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev, Dmitry Petelin and Andrey Fedyaev, NASA astronauts Frank Rubio, Stephen Bowen and Warren Hoburg, and United Arab Emirates astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi. The visiting Axiom-2 crew includes Axiom Space astronaut (a former NASA astronaut) Peggy Whitson, commercial astronaut John Shoffner and Saudi Arabian astronauts Ali AlQarni and Rayyanah Barnawi.

Having just undocked from the ISS at about 11:05 a.m. EDT (15:05 UTC), the four-person Axiom-2 crew is set to return to Earth later this evening off the coast of Florida. Splashdown time is expected just after 11 p.m. EDT May 30 (03:00 UTC May 31).

By the end of the week, the number of residents in low Earth orbit will decrease to 10 people, which has been the current regular orbital population since China finished building its Tiangong space station in the summer of 2022. The ISS typically has seven people aboard while Tiangong has three.

The Shenzhou 16 crew enters the Tiangong space station. Video courtesy of CCTV

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Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.

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