Chinese spaceship reaches final orbit

The Shenzhou VII rocket has been circling the Earth while astronauts on the third Chinese manned space mission prepare for their first spacewalk. They are scheduled to spend 15 hours assembling and testing their spacesuits on Friday.


China's third manned space mission reached its final orbit early on Friday where astronauts preparing for the country's first spacewalk enjoyed spicy food and the convenience of an onboard toilet.

The Shenzhou VII blasted off from a remote desert site on Thursday on a trip designed to showcase China's technological mastery and crown the success of the Beijing Olympics.

The launch, part of a space programme that could eventually lead to a landing on the moon, was watched by millions of Chinese and the event has dominated state media.

The craft is circling at 343 km (213 miles) above the Earth, orbiting every 90 minutes, preparing for what a senior engineer said would be the most challenging part of the mission.

"For the space walk the demands are higher, and the challenge is more difficult," he told state television.

Zhai Zhigang, who dreamt of flying into space as an impoverished teenager, is expected to make China's first "footprint in space" on Saturday.

The son of a snack vendor, he will spend 40 minutes outside, wearing a Chinese-designed space suit, named after a flying Buddhist goddess and with a price tag of 30 million yuan ($4.40 million), the official Xinhua agency said.

"The worst-case scenario for me is becoming a real spaceman -- that is, never coming back again once I get out of the spacecraft," the China Daily quoted him saying before take-off, but he added that there was no chance his equipment would fail.

The 42-year-old from frigid northeastern Heilongjiang province, who has spent a decade training to fly into space, will also be able to have a private phone chat with his family.

A colleague will wait in the orbital module in a Russian suit for backup. The men will assemble and test the suits on Friday, a task which takes nearly 15 hours, Xinhua said.

Space: the final Communist Party frontier

As they ready for the space walk the trio are testing the country's first ever space toilet. Astronauts aboard China's previous two manned missions had to wear diapers, Xinhua said.

They are also enjoying a better diet after chefs worked to improve dishes, putting vinegar and sauces on the packing list.

But some products are still off the menu.

"As the astronauts will stay in an environment with low pressure, they should not eat foods that produce gas after being digested, such as milk and soy bean," Xinhua quoted Chen Bin, the mission food manager, saying.

China aims to set up a permanent space station, possibly in the next decade, but will first build a smaller orbiting lab. A space station would be a badge of China's status as a high-tech power and serve as a platform for winning a share of space-based resources and innovations, the country's scientists have said.

With a name meaning "sacred vessel", the Shenzhou programme is secretively run through military and government agencies and its budget is unclear. In 2003, officials said it had cost 18 billion yuan ($2.6 billion) up to then.

The People's Daily, the official newspaper of China's ruling Communist Party, celebrated the launch as an affirmation of its policies. A commentary said that following the Beijing Olympics "the eyes of the world are once again on China".

"Manned space travel is a distilled demonstration of the world's current level of high-tech development, and it is an important indicator of a country's overall strength."

China's first manned spaceflight was in 2003, and a second, two-manned flight followed in 2005.

The country's first astronaut, Yang Liwei, said last year that the Communist Party might start a branch in space. Under Party rules only three members need to be present to establish a meeting and all the astronauts are signed up.

"We may not pray in the way our foreign counterparts do, but the common belief has made us more united in space, where there is no national boundary," he said at a Party meeting.

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