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Space fliers rack up firsts for China After one day in space, the two astronauts aboard China’s Shenzhou 6 spacecraft already have racked up a series of firsts for their country’s space program.
Launch Of Manned Shenzhou VI Spacecraft
In an image from Chinese television, astronauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng are seen inside their Shenzhou 6 spacecraft after its launch from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Wednesday.Chinafotopress / Getty Images
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After one day in space, the two astronauts aboard China’s Shenzhou 6 spacecraft already have racked up a series of firsts for their country’s space program, not the least of which began with leaving their seats.

Circling the Earth in a 213-mile (343-kilometer) orbit, Chinese astronauts Fei Julong and Nie Haisheng conducted a day of observation and science in the orbital module of their Shenzhou 6 spacecraft, according to state media reports.

The two astronauts, both former fighter pilots, launched into space on China’s second manned spaceflight at 9 a.m. Wednesday (9 p.m. ET Tuesday). The astronauts are slated to spend up to five days in space during their mission.

The flight is aimed at demonstrating China’s space prowess — the country is only the third nation to independently launch a human into orbit — as well as the prestige of its communist government. Shenzhou 5, China’s first manned spaceflight, launched astronaut Yang Liwei on a 21 1/2-hour mission on Oct. 15, 2003.

Orbital module debut
Nine hours after the successful launch, Fei unstrapped himself from his chair and floated into Shenzhou 6’s orbital module, and later switched positions with Nie, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported.

The crew’s movements marked another step in China’s human spaceflight efforts. While Fei worked in the orbital module, Nie used a digital camera to take photographs of the flight, Xinhua reported. Both astronauts were to have taken off their 22-pound (10-kilogram) spacesuits.

“It suggests that the orbital module is functioning as expected, and that’s good,” Dean Cheng, a China space specialist with CNA Corp. in Arlington, Va., told Wednesday. “It certainly means that the Shenzhou is going to be able to keep its crew occupied.”

During the Shenzhou 5 mission, Yang spent the entire time strapped into his chair in the spacecraft’s crew compartment.

“This second mission expands on [China’s] ability to test life support systems,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, who follows China’s space efforts and chairs of the National Security Studies at the United States Naval War College in Newport, R.I. “Now they’ve established that [Shenzhou 5] was not a one-time deal.”

New systems and equipment
China’s Shenzhou spacecraft borrow their basic design from Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft but are tailored with new systems and equipment. They consist of a primary crew-carrying re-entry module, an orbital module and a service module.

Shenzhou 6’s orbital module reportedly contains experiments and equipment, a food heater and other new equipment to be tested on this flight. It carries its own solar arrays and could stay in Earth orbit for a prolonged period, experts say.

Johnson-Freese told that Shenzhou 6 pushes China past its first phase of space development and on a path that could likely lead to more sophisticated demonstrations, including spacewalks and dockings and ultimately a hookup of its orbital modules into a flying space lab.

“I think we’ll find out in due course [whether] they are going to detach from the orbital module and undertake a few maneuvers while they are still in orbit,” Cheng said of the Shenzhou 6 crew, adding that he does not expect a docking demonstration for this flight. “That would be remarkably ambitious for a second flight.”

Other firsts for China
Fei and Nie are expected to perform a series of physical exercises inside the Shenzhou 6 orbital module as well as life science tests to evaluate the effects of weightlessness, Xinhua reported.

Photography and biological cell tests are also slated to be performed throughout the mission.

The science experiments are the first to require astronaut interaction and are key if China is to proceed toward future human space exploration, Chinese space officials have said.

Wang Yongzhi, who heads China’s manned space program, told Xinhua that the Shenzhou 6 experiments will explore how astronauts adapt to the spaceflight environment and return data that are vital for the development of a permanent space station.

On a tastier note, Fei and Nie have a far wider range of food available to them for this flight than Yang did on his, according to state press reports.

The People’s Daily Online and Xinhua reported that about 88 pounds (40 kilograms) of food rode into orbit aboard Shenzhou 6 to provide three meals of up to six dishes each for Fei and Nie.

While rice is a staple — it comes sealed in 5-ounce (140-gram) amounts — beef cooked in orange peels and vegetables are also on the menu, along with coffee, green tea, orange juice and other fruits, Xinhua reported.

State press accounts have also reported that the two astronauts will sleep in shifts during their multi-day mission.

Heroes of China
After Wednesday's launch, the Shenzhou 6 astronauts spoke briefly from space with family members at Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center, state media reported.

“We are all pleased to see both of you are in good spirits,” Xinhua quoted Wang Jie, Fei’s wife, as saying. “Meanwhile, we all feel very proud of you.”

Fei reportedly thanked family members for their support and made plans to go fishing with his son Fei De, who asked how the astronaut felt in weightlessness.

“I feel fine,” Fei said, according to state media.

Nie was reportedly moved to tears while speaking with his wife, Nie Haisheng, and listened to a birthday song from his daughter Nie Tianxiang. Xinhua said the astronaut is turning 41 on this spaceflight.

Already national heroes
According to Chinese press reports, the Shenzhou 6 crew — like Shenzhou 5’s Yang Liwei — are already national heroes.

In Zaoyang, Nie’s hometown, in China’s central province of Hubei, revelers let loose 1,000 pigeons and balloons in front of the astronaut’s house, Xinhua reported.

"I was very nervous when the launching process began, but now I feel so excited and proud of my brother," Nie Daozhi, the astronaut's sister, told Xinhua. She adding that her entire family looks forward to his safe return.

This report includes information from the Xinhua news agency and other Chinese state media.