China plans first spacewalk

BEIJING -- From a secretive desert town in China's northwest, the country will launch its third manned spaceflight today, which will feature the nation's first spacewalk.

Chinese television will broadcast the takeoff from the Jiuquan satellite launch center in Gansu province, as well as the spacewalk, for the public to view another milestone soon after last month's Olympic Games in Beijing.

Russian technicians will provide support for the spacewalk during the Shenzhou 7 mission, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Two of the three taikonauts on board will suit up, but only one will step into space for about 40 minutes, 213 miles above Earth. The spacewalk could be Friday or Saturday.

"We are confident, determined and able to take the first step of Chinese people in space," astronaut Jin Haipeng said Wednesday. Jin and the two other astronauts — including Zhai Zhigang, who is likely to make the spacewalk — are fighter pilots, all age 42, and have lived and trained together for the past decade.

China's "Divine Vessel" spacecraft, powered by China's Long March rockets, will blast off at 9 a.m. today ET (9 p.m. today in China), weather permitting, for a mission that will last three to five days.

The Shenzhou 7 is scheduled to land in the central area of Inner Mongolia in northern China.

The spacewalk marks a milestone in China's fast-developing space program, a multimillion-dollar, military-backed operation that has excited this nation of 1.3 billion people, and whose secrecy has worried NASA and China's neighbors.

Chinese officials deny any military purpose to its space program.

"So far, China's manned space program hasn't carried out a single military task," said Cui Jijun, director of the Jiuquan center, according to Xinhua. Cui said the manned space program is scientific exploration that could boost technology and innovation.

In the 1950s, Chairman Mao Zedong complained that China could not even shoot a potato into space, but the nation has caught up quickly in recent years.

In 2003, China became the third nation after the United States and Soviet Russia to send a man into space. China sent two astronauts up in 2005 for its second spaceflight.

Top Chinese scientists have openly discussed long-term plans to land a man on the moon and to build a space station.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told a U.S. congressional hearing in February that China is becoming a more serious competitor in manned spaceflight.

The spacewalk "is a big technical step forward," said Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on China's space program at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "If they show it live (on TV), that shows a marked increase in their own confidence."

The payoffs can be considerable, Johnson-Freese said.

The Chinese "basically studied our Apollo program playbook and want those multiple benefits," she said. China's space program "gives the communist government great prestige and credit from its people, just like the Olympic Games. Economically, it shows the rest of the world that if you can do space technology, you can do a lot more than knock off designer clothing."

The spacewalk is being watched closely at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, where one-third of the 23,000 students are directly involved in aerospace.

"Some people may say that China still has many poor people and the space program is expensive, but we need all-round development," says student Chen Shichun, 21. "Space can help develop technologies that boost the economy for everyone."

One example is the "space vegetable" experiment, in which scientists sent plant seeds into space, then cultivated them into super-large vegetables on Earth.

This latest mission will release a communication satellite to film the spacewalk and could be used for a future space station.

The Chinese spacecraft borrows heavily from the Soviet Soyuz design, and Chinese astronauts have trained in Russia.

In the future, China may train foreign astronauts, said Chen Shanguang, head of the China Astronaut Research and Training Center, according to Xinhua.

"International cooperation is an inevitable trend in manned spaceflights, which are large-scale projects with complex technologies and huge investment," he said.

The United States remains far ahead of China's program. "What China is doing is pretty spartan and prudent," Johnson-Freese said.