September 29, 2008

Chinese Watch Astronauts Take First Walk in Space

By Christopher Bodeen

BEIJING - Chinese celebrated their nation's first spacewalk Saturday, gathering at outdoor TV screens to cheer live video of the milestone for a program that has ambitions of building a space station and challenging the U.S. and Russia in off-world exploration.

Stoking national pride one month after the close of the Beijing Olympics, state television's coverage reflected much of the glory onto president and Communist Party leader Hu Jintao, who was present at Thursday's launch and watched the spacewalk at Beijing's ground control center.

"Your success represents a new breakthrough in our manned space program," Hu told the astronauts in a scripted exchange that was also broadcast live.

"The motherland and the people thank you," said Hu, who is chairman of the powerful Communist Party and government military committees that oversee the space program.

The spacewalk was mainly aimed at testing China's mastery of the technology. Mission commander Zhai Zhigang's sole task was to retrieve a rack attached to the outside of the orbital module containing an experiment involving solid lubricants.

Tethered to handles attached to the Shenzhou 7 ship's orbital module, Zhai remained outside for about 13 minutes before climbing back inside through the open hatch.

Fellow astronaut Liu Boming also emerged briefly from the capsule to hand Zhai a Chinese flag. The third crew member, Jing Haipeng, monitored the ship from inside the re-entry module.

Following the spacewalk, the astronauts released an 88-pound satellite to circle the orbiter and send back images to mission control.

The spacewalk was an opening step for China's plan to assemble a space station from two Shenzhou orbital modules, the next major goal of the manned space program. China is also pursuing lunar exploration and may attempt to land a man on the moon in the next decade.

China launched its first manned mission, Shenzhou 5, in 2003, becoming only the third country after Russia and the United States to launch a man into space.

Along with challenging Russia and the U.S., the spacewalk ups the ante in China's competition with Asia's other aspiring space powers, Japan and India. China's advances have spurred space spending by those two nations, partly for bragging rights but also in search of economic benefits such as a bigger slice of the commercial satellite launching business.

In step with its growing list of achievements, China's military- backed space program has grown progressively less secretive and officials have hinted in recent days at a desire for greater cooperation with other nations. China plans to mass produce the next version of the Shenzhou ship to service a future space station and says it may make such missions available to other countries.

Originally published by Christopher Bodeen Associated Press .

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