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China launches mission for first spacewalk

China successfully launched a three-man crew into space Thursday to carry out the country's first spacewalk, beginning the nation's most challenging space mission since it first sent a person into space in 2003.
/ Source: news services

China launched a three-man crew into space Thursday, including one who will make the country’s first spacewalk — making this the country's most challenging mission since its first orbital flight in 2003.

The Shenzhou 7 spacecraft, China’s third manned mission, blasted off atop a Long March 2F rocket into a clear night sky in northwestern China.

The spacewalk could occur either Friday or Saturday, depending on how well the astronauts adapt to weightlessness and other physical demands of their environment, according to the China Manned Space Engineering Office. The astronauts would return to Earth soon afterward, the office said.

Underscoring the mission’s weighty political overtones, President Hu Jintao was shown live on state television before blastoff praising the crew at the launch site near the northwestern town of Jiuquan.

“You will definitely accomplish this glorious and sacred mission. The motherland and the people are looking forward to your triumphant return,” Hu told the three, who were dressed in their flight suits and stood behind glass to avoid germs.

Following the announcement of a successful launch, Hu congratulated the crew and ground controllers, calling it the “first victory of the Shenzhou 7 mission.”

The launch was carried live on state television in a display of China’s growing confidence in the 16-year manned space program. Shortly before the transmission ended, one of the crew reported in that all were in good condition and had extended the three-module spacecraft’s solar panels.

Careful planning for spacewalk
The mission, expected to last three to four days, is devoted almost entirely to the spacewalk. The event is expected to help China master the technology for docking two orbiters to create China’s first space station in the next few years.

China’s last manned mission was in 2005, two years after the country first put a man into orbit. Dean Cheng, an expert on the Chinese space program, said the additional year China took in launching Shenzhou 7 may reflect a desire for caution in the face of the complexity of walking in space.

“This is part of a sustained, methodical effort,” said Cheng, of the Center for Naval Analyses Corp. in Alexandria, Va.

The two astronauts who don spacesuits for the Shenzhou 7 spacewalk will be supported by Russian experts throughout the mission. Only one will actually leave the orbiter to retrieve scientific experiments placed outside. One of the astronauts will wear China’s homemade Feitian suit, while the other will wear a Russian-made suit.

Media sensation
China's official media lovingly described countless details of the mission. The astronauts have a choice of nearly 80 foods, including spicy kung pao chicken cooked with a "new method," nutritionist Chen Bin told the Xinhua News Agency.

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The media coverage led to a slight stir on Thursday when Xinhua posted an article on its Web site describing a successful launch, hours before the rocket even left the ground.

A staffer from the Web site told The Associated Press that the article was published mistakenly due to a "technical error." The staffer refused to give his name, as is common among Chinese officials.

The article, which was removed from the Web site before launch, included supposed dialogue between astronauts and ground controllers: "One minute to go!" ... "Changjiang No. 1 found the target!" ... "The air pressure in the cabin is normal!"

Humble beginnings
Xinhua has touted fighter pilot Zhai Zhigang, an unsuccessful candidate for the previous two manned missions, as the leading astronaut to carry out the spacewalk. Chinese media played up Zhai's humble beginnings, reporting that he grew up dirt-poor with five siblings in the country's far northeast. His mother sold fried melon seeds as snacks to help pay his way through school, according to the reports.

Zhai and fellow astronauts and fighter pilots Jing Haipeng and Liu Boming — all age 42 — were introduced to journalists at a pre-launch news conference late Wednesday.

A decade of training together ensured effective, smooth cooperation between the three, Liu said.

"The Shenzhou 7 mission marks a historic breakthrough in China's manned space program," Zhai said. "It is a great honor for all three of us to fly the mission, and we are fully prepared for the challenge."

This report includes information from The Associated Press and Reuters.