- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2008

BEIJING | Chinese celebrated their nation’s first spacewalk on 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 offworld 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,” Mr. Hu told the astronauts in a scripted exchange that was also broadcast live.

“The motherland and the people thank you,” said Mr. 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, Mr. Zhai remained outside for about 13 minutes before climbing back inside through the hatch.

“Greetings to all the people of the nation and all the people of the world,” Mr. Zhai said into an external camera he floated halfway out of the open hatch.

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

While successful, the spacewalk wasn’t without its anxious moments.

Mr. Zhai, a 41-year-old fighter pilot, appeared to struggle with the hatch and then a fire alarm was triggered in the orbiter as he began the spacewalk.

Wang Zhaoyao, deputy director of manned space flight, conceded the combined effects of weightlessness and depressurization on the hatch opening operation hadn’t been fully anticipated. He blamed a faulty sensor for the fire alarm.

The spacewalk required astronauts to first depressurize and then repressurize the orbital module and proved the effectiveness of Mr. Zhai’s Feitian space suit, produced by China at a cost of $4.4 million. Mr. Liu wore a nearly identical Russian-made Orlan suit, state media said.

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 - possibly ahead of NASA’s 2020 target date for returning to the moon.

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