A Chinese astronaut today performed the nation’s first-ever spacewalk, the latest milestone in an ambitious programme that is increasingly rivalling the US and Russia in its rapid expansion.
Mission commander Zhai Zhigang floated out of the orbiter module’s hatch in the spacewalk, shown live on state broadcaster CCTV. Tethered to handles attached to the Shenzhou 7 ship’s orbital module’s exterior, Zhai remained outside for about 13 minutes before climbing back inside and closing the hatch behind him.
“Shenzhou 7 has left the module, physically feel very good. Greetings to all the people of the nation and all the people of the world,” Zhai said.
Fellow astronaut Liu Boming also emerged briefly from the capsule to hand Zhai a Chinese flag that he waved for an exterior camera filming the event. The third crew member, Jing Haipeng, monitored the ship from inside the re-entry module.
The successful spacewalk paves the way for assembling a space station from two Shenzhou orbital modules, the next major goal of China’s manned spaceflight programme. 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, followed by a two-man mission in 2005.
Since blasting off from their north-western China launch base yesterday, the astronauts had been largely occupied with preparing the suits and adapting to zero gravity. Meals aboard the craft have followed a typical Chinese menu, featuring versions of kung pao chicken, shrimp and dried fruit, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
Yesterday, the three-module capsule shifted from an oval orbit to a more stable circular orbit 213 miles (343km) above Earth, meaning it is circling at a constant distance.
The change ensured that Earth’s gravitational pull would not vary during the spacewalk attempt and will help Shenzhou make a precise landing on the Inner Mongolian Steppe tomorrow after its re-entry vehicle bursts through Earth’s atmosphere, Xinhua said.