China counts down to its riskiest space mission yet

China counts down to its riskiest space mission yet


China: China counted down Thursday to its third manned space mission which for the first time will include a space walk -- a feat as risky as it is prestigious for the rising Asian power.

Zhai Zhigang, an airforce colonel who grew up in abject poverty in China’s bleak northeast, is expected to carry out the 30-minute space walk Friday or more likely Saturday, according to state media.

The Long March 2F rocket carrying the Shenzhou VII spacecraft is scheduled to blast off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwest China between 9:07pm and 10:27pm onThursday.

Its mission: a 68-hour journey to space and back, including the walk while in orbit 373 kilometres (230 miles) above Earth.

“We have the confidence, the determination and the ability to take the Chinese people’s first steps into space," said one of the three astronauts, Jing Haipeng, referring to the space walk.

Spacewalking, now a cakewalk for the Chinese

Getting comfortable with the art of spacewalking is a crucial next step in China’s most immediate extra-terrestrial ambition: to build a permanent space lab.

By 2010 two more unmanned craft will have been sent up, as well as another manned spaceship with a crew of three to start work on the lab, according to the China Daily.

Vice President Xi Jinping -- widely seen as a candidate to become China’s next leader when political power changes hands in four year’s time -- was due to meet the astronauts two and a half hours before take-off, the China Daily said.

Training for over a decade, risks prevail

The astronauts, led by 41-year-old Zhai, have trained together for over a decade, but the mission is not without its risks, notably the space walk.

“The process of (space walks) cannot be simulated completely on the ground," said Wang Zhaoyao, spokesman of the manned space mission, according to the China Daily.

One of the astronauts, whom government websites have identified as Zhai, will test a new Chinese-made spacesuit on the space walk. Coming just a month after the end of the Beijing Olympics, the mission may trigger a new burst of nationalist pride in some segments of the population.

National pride, once again to the fore

Space enthusiasts have been converging on the city of Jiuquan, in a remote part of Gansu province, hoping to witness for themselves China’s next bid for greatness.

A middle school teacher surnamed Chen from the provincial capital, Lanzhou, was part of a group of 200 who would be bused the 280 kilometres to the launch centre to watch Shenzhou -- its name means “Divine Vessel" -- blast off.

China’s manned space programme is characterised by its frugality compared with the US and Soviet programmes in the 1960s, and it does not repeat a test or an experiment that has already proved successful, observers say.

The Shenzhou VII is scheduled to land in the northern Inner Mongolia region after the mission is completed.