China launched a spacecraft on Thursday carrying three astronauts to a new space station for the country’s longest crewed mission to date, Reuters reported. The astronauts were transported on a Long March-2F rocket to the Tiangong space station, where they will spend three months.

The rocket, transporting the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft, or “Divine Vessel”, bound for the space station module Tianhe blasted off at 9.22 am Beijing time (6.52 am IST) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern Gansu province.

The spacecraft will dock with the Tianhe main section of the space station, which was placed in orbit on April 29, according to AFP.

Shenzhou-12 is the third of 11 missions, four of which will be crewed, needed to complete China’s first full-fledged space station. Construction began in April with the launch of Tianhe, the first and largest of three modules.

“It feels great,” said crew commander, 56-year-old Nie Haisheng, after reaching near-Earth orbit, according to the South China Morning Post. This is the third space mission of Nie, a decorated air force pilot in the People’s Liberation Army. Another veteran, Liu Boming, 54, and 45-year-old Tang Hongbo, on his first journey into space, make up the rest of the crew.

China’s space ambitions have been fueled in part by a United States ban on its astronauts on the International Space Station, a collaboration between the the US, Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan, AFP reported. The International Space Station is due for retirement after 2024, even though National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, said it could potentially remain functional beyond 2028.

“This mission will be the first manned flight as part of the China space station’s construction,” Nie told reporters at the Jiuquan launch centre. “I am very fortunate to kick off the first leg of the space station’s construction and I have many hopes.”

Since 2003, China has launched six crewed missions and sent 11 astronauts into space, including Zhai Zhigang, who carried out China’s first space walk ever on the 2008 Shenzhou mission.