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SPACE

Chinese rocket lifts off on first space-walk mission

3 min

A Chinese rocket has lifted off on the country's first-ever space-walk mission. "Taikonaut" Zhai Zhigang will float out of an airlock 341 km above the earth to prepare for an orbiting station. It is China's third manned space flight.

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Zhai Zhigang is poised to become a hero in China’s latest space adventure. He will fly onboard the Shenzhou 7 vessel Thursday night from a Jiuquan military base in the Gobi desert. If all goes well, he is likely to conduct the first space walk by a Chinese astronaut, known as taikonaut.

The mission of this army colonel and his two fellow taikonauts will last about 40 minutes. A satellite will beam live signals of their every move to the whole country, pushing nationalist fervour to a new high in a country already flushed with patriotism after hosting the Olympic Games.

“The space walk remains to be the biggest challenge,” Jiao Weixin, a professor at Peking University, told France24. “We must be prepared, starting with having state-of-the-art equipment and technologies.”

If successful, China will become the third country in the world – after the United States and Russia – to have a space-walking astronaut. China began its space mission only ten years ago and, as in many other areas, it has been catching up fast.

In 2003 China entered the exclusive club of countries with successful manned space flights. The second triumph arrived two years later with the launch of the Long March 2 rocket and a modified Russian-style Soyuz capsule. The next step will be the conquest of the moon, a crucial goal for Chinese leaders.

“If the Shenzhou 7 mission is successful, Beijing will continue to have the momentum and will orbit its own space station by 2020,” Professor Jiao told us. “The last step is to establish a lunar base within 50 years.”

China is eager to exploit the rich energy resources on the moon, a potentially worrisome move for the United States. At a pre-launch press conference, Ouyang Ziyuan, a scientist and pioneer of the Chinese space mission, explained: “The space does not belong to anyone. If the Americans are able to establish lunar settlements first, there is no guarantee they will share the moon with us. We must act quickly but remain peaceful.”

Another goal not stated by the government appears to be diverting attention away from scores of problems facing the country ranging from economic difficulties to the current tainted milk scandal. It may not be a coincidence that the mission takes place between the end of the Paralympic Games and the start of the National Day holiday on October 1, two events steeped in nationalism. For Colonel Zhai, the pressure is strong to ensure this mission a great success.

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