by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) Sept 16, 2008
A 42-year-old fighter pilot has been chosen to become the first Chinese person to walk in space, with the historic mission set for September 25, the government said Tuesday.
Zhai Zhigang, a colonel in the People's Liberation Army, and two other astronauts will be on board the Shenzhou VII for China's third manned space mission when it blasts off for a 68-hour flight, the nation's cabinet said.
He will then undertake a 40-minute manoeuvre outside the spacecraft on the afternoon of either September 26 or 27, according to the announcement on the website of the State Council, or cabinet.
Zhai, who is married with one son, will release a small satellite capable of broadcasting video images of his walk outside the craft, it said.
His pressurised spacesuit, which cost up to 100 million yuan (15 million dollars), is largely based on Russian designs and will include two lifelines that will supply oxygen and communications, the announcement said.
The Shenzhou VII is scheduled to launch from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the desert of northwest China's Gansu province on the evening of September 25, according to the cabinet.
The return capsule is scheduled to return to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia on September 28.
Riding with him in the spacecraft will be Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng, both also 42 and PLA fighter pilots, according to the announcement.
All three astronauts, or taikonauts as they are known in China, are members of the ruling Communist Party.
They formed the back-up team for the October 2005, Shenzhou VI space mission, which carried two astronauts on a five-day flight.
Zhai, who moved over from the PLA's airforce to the nation's space programme in 1998, was also on a shortlist of three candidates to become China's first man in space during the Shenzhou V flight in 2003.
That honour eventually went to Yang Liwei whose solo mission saw China become only the third country after the United States and the former Soviet Union to send a man into space.
China's communist leaders have long used the space programme to showcase the nation's huge economic and scientific development under their rule, and analysts have said the timing of the latest launch is no coincidence.
The blast-off will occur after the staging of a successful Olympics and Paralympics -- events that helped boost national pride and thus the popularity of the leadership -- and ahead of China's National Day on October 1.
China has even greater space ambitions, with an eventual plan to put a man on the moon by about 2020, according to some sections of China's state-run press.
The United States, Japan and other nations have previously expressed concern that modernising China's space programme could pose a military threat.
Those concerns spiked in January 2006 after a test exercise in which China became only the third nation to shoot down a satellite with a missile.
However President Hu Jintao and other leaders have repeatedly sought to play down fears of a rising China space threat.
"The development of our nation's outer space exploration is completely for peaceful purposes," Hu said after China successfully carried out its first lunar probe last year.
The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
China News from SinoDaily.com
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