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China counts down to risky space shot

On the eve of its most ambitious manned space mission yet, Chinese officials introduced the three-man crew Wednesday and said Russian technicians will help guide one of them on China’s first spacewalk.
Image: Chinese astronauts before a launch drill at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center
Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng, Zhai Zhigang and Liu Boming salute before taking part in a drill earlier this month for Thursday's scheduled launch of the Shenzhou 7 spacecraft at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.Reuters
/ Source: news services

On the eve of its most ambitious and riskiest manned space mission yet, Chinese officials introduced the three-man crew Wednesday and said Russian technicians will help guide one of them on China’s first spacewalk.

The three-man mission, expected to last about three days, is China’s most challenging since it launched its first "taikonaut" into space in 2003. The spacewalk is expected to help China develop the technology for docking two orbiters to create China’s first space station in the future. But it will also expose a spacesuited Chinese astronaut to the vacuum of space for the first time ever.

The two astronauts donning suits for the maneuver will be “supported by Russian experts throughout the mission,” space program spokesman Wang Zhaoyao told reporters at the Jiuquan launch site in northwestern China. Only one will actually leave the module to retrieve scientific experiments placed outside.

China’s secretive military-backed space program has relied overwhelmingly on domestic technology and know-how, and cooperation with Russia has been highly limited. One of the astronauts will wear China’s homemade Feitian suit, while the other will wear a Russian-made suit.

After the spacewalk, "the spacecraft will release a small monitoring satellite," Wang told reporters. The Shenzhou 7 descent capsule is due to land in the northern region of Inner Mongolia at the end of the mission, but Wang did not provide a date for the landing.

International cooperation sought
Wang said Russian support for the latest mission could translate into a broader relationship in future.

“The successful cooperation on the Shenzhou 7 manned mission will create favorable conditions for future cooperation between our two countries,” Wang said, without giving details.

The official Xinhua news agency quoted Chen Shanguang, head of China's astronaut training center, as saying that astronauts from other countries may be trained there.

"China's two successful manned space missions so far showed the country's technical ability of independently training astronauts, and it was one of the center's goals to train international astronauts in future," Chen said. "International cooperation is an inevitable trend in manned spaceflights, which are large-scale projects with complex technologies and huge investment."

Astronauts trained for a decade
Fighter pilot Zhai Zhigang, 42, an unsuccessful candidate for the previous two manned missions, has been touted by Xinhua as the leading astronaut to carry out the spacewalk. Zhai and his comrades Jing Haipeng and Liu Boming — both 42 also — have been training together for a decade, ensuring effective, smooth cooperation among the three, Liu said.

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“It is a great honor for all three of us to fly the mission, and we are fully prepared for the challenge,” Zhai said.

Jing told journalists that the training was a "massive test" of the trio's physical and psychological fitness. "We've overcome hardship, won out over ourselves and challenged the extreme limits," he said.

Wang gave no exact date or time for the spacewalk, but said the launch window for the mission at Jiuquan was set for between 9:07 p.m. and 10:27 p.m. (9:07 a.m. and 10:27 a.m. ET) on Thursday. Xinhua reported that the rocket was being fueled, meaning that the countdown to launch is "irreversible."

This report includes information from The Associated Press and Reuters.