China launches three-man crew on spacewalk mission
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: September 25, 2008
Three Chinese astronauts blasted off on the country's third human space voyage Thursday, beginning a mission that will include the Chinese space program's first spacewalk.
Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng, all 42-year-old military pilots, crawled into the cramped Shenzhou 7 spacecraft during the final three hours of the countdown.
Shenzhou 7, mounted to the tip of a 191-foot-tall Long March 2F rocket, lifted off at 1310 GMT (9:10 a.m. EDT) from the Jiuquan launch center in northwestern China.
The blastoff marked the first piloted Chinese space mission to launch at night. China's two previous manned missions took flight during mid-morning.
The rocket shed its four liquid-fueled strap-on boosters about two-and-a-half minutes later. The first stage and a nose cone shielding the ship during the early launch sequence were jettisoned about three minutes after liftoff.
The second stage delivered Shenzhou 7 to a preliminary orbit less than 10 minutes into the mission. The capsule separated from the rocket a few moments later.
Data indicated the craft reached an orbit stretching from a low point of 124 miles to a high point of 215 miles. The orbital inclination was 43 degrees.
Chinese state television provided live coverage of the launch, including English commentary. China Central Television will continue covering the mission through landing, according to the state-owned network.
Chinese President Hu Jintao witnessed the launch at Jiuquan and wished the crew well during a pre-launch ceremony.
"The motherland and (its) people are waiting for your triumphant return," Hu said.
The crew reported they were in good condition following the ride into space. The astronauts were to begin outfitting the ship for the mission before participating in a critical orbit-raising maneuver at about 2000 GMT (4 p.m. EDT).
The engine firing will circularize the ship's orbit at an altitude of about 213 miles.
The mission's spacewalk, the primary goal of the flight, is slated for Friday or Saturday, according to the earlier state-run media reports.
Two of the astronauts will move from the landing capsule into the orbital module at the forward end of the 17,000-pound spacecraft. The entry module is sandwiched between the orbital module and an unpressurized service and propulsion module at the aft end of the ship.
The orbital module will act as an airlock to depressurize and pressurize the cabin during the spacewalk.
One of the astronauts will open the hatch and leave the ship wearing a Chinese Feitian spacesuit.
The lead spacewalker will retrieve samples from Shenzhou 7's exterior before returning to the ship's cabin.
A backup spacewalker will remain inside the orbital module in a Russian Orlan suit, ready to assist if anything goes wrong. The third crew member will be in the entry capsule during the historic spacewalk.
Chinese officials have not formally announced which astronauts have been tapped for the spacewalk, or extra-vehicular activity. Earlier reports from state media indicated Zhai would be the lead spacewalker and Liu would be his backup.
The astronauts trained for the spacewalk in a giant pool similar to water tanks used for EVA training in the United States and Russia.
Other objectives for Shenzhou 7 include deploying a small satellite and conducting communications tests with a newly-launched tracking satellite.
Expected to last about three days, the Shenzhou 7 mission will end with a fiery re-entry and parachuted landing in the steppes of Inner Mongolia in northwestern China.