September 29, 2008

Chinese Look to Heavens for Today’s Walk

By Christopher Bodeen

BEIJING - Astronauts aboard China's Shenzhou 7 spacecraft prepared Friday for the country's first-ever spacewalk today.

Prepping the two space suits - one Chinese, one Russian - takes about 12 hours and includes booting up the power, life support and other systems and synchronizing them, said Wang Zhaoyao, deputy director of China's manned space program office.

"This is China's first attempt (at a spacewalk) so there are a lot of uncertainties," Wang said.

The 20-minute spacewalk is scheduled for this afternoon. The exact timing depends on the readiness of equipment and personnel, Wang said. The event will be broadcast live on television, he said.

Performing a successful spacewalk is a key step in mastering techniques for linking two orbiters, required to create China's first space station, expected within the next few years.

The two astronauts donning suits for the spacewalk will be supported by Russian experts throughout the mission. Only one astronaut will actually leave the orbiter module to retrieve scientific experiments placed outside, described by the official Xinhua news agency as solid lubricant samples. The ship will then release an 88-pound satellite, which will circle the orbiter and send back images to mission command.

Shenzhou 7 commander Zhai Zhigang is expected to carry out the spacewalk. Like his fellow astronauts, he is a 42-year-old fighter pilot.

Thursday's launch of China's third manned mission in five years dominated front pages of the state-controlled media, largely supplanting coverage of China's continuing scandal involving contaminated milk, which has killed four babies and sickened more than 54,000. The coverage underscores the weighty role of politics and patriotism in the space program, which is portrayed as an illustration of China's technological might and global influence.

Originally published by Christopher Bodeen Associated Press .

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