Shenzhou 6 Away! China Launches Two Astronauts in Second Manned Spaceflight
China launched its second manned spacecraft Shenzhou-6 at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Gansu Province at 9:00 a.m. local time Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2005.
Credit: AP Photo / Xinhua, Zhao Jianwei.

Two years after making its first foray into the realm of human spaceflight, China has once again launched a manned spacecraft into Earth orbit during a successful Tuesday space shot.

Clad in space suits and tucked inside their Shenzhou 6 spacecraft, Chinese astronauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng left Earth behind at 9:00 p.m. EDT (0100 Oct. 12 GMT) as their 19-story Long March 2F rocket lifted off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, state media reported. A few minutes later, the astronauts were in orbit.

It was 9:00 a.m. local time during the space shot, which was beamed across China via live television.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao wished the astronauts - whose identities were unveiled only hours before liftoff - well, adding that he was confident they "will accomplish the glorious and sacred mission," China's Xinhua News Agency reported.

A schematic of Shenzhou 5 CREDIT: Simon Zajc/Elizabeth Lagana. Click to enlarge.

Fei and Nie will orbit Earth for as long as five days during the Shenzhou 6 spaceflight, China's first two-person mission, and are expected to perform a series of experiments to advance China's understanding of human spaceflight. Their mission comes almost two years to the day of China's first manned spaceflight, Shenzhou 5, which launched astronaut Yang Liwei on a 21 ? hour mission on Oct. 15, 2003. China is the third nation to independently launch astronauts into orbit.

"Feeling pretty good,'' Fei reportedly said, in the first broadcast comment from the astronauts, according to the Associated Press.

Fei, 40, hails from Kunshan in China's eastern province of Jiangsu and was one of five candidates for China's first manned spaceflight, Shenzhou 5, Xinhua stated. Fei's crewmate Nie, 41, is from Zaoyang, in the Hubei Province in central China, and was one of the three finalists for the Shenzhou 5 spaceflight alongside astronauts Zhai Zhigang and Yang Liwei, who ultimately made the country's first manned space shot.

"We have confidence and capability to fulfill the glorious task of the motherland and the people," Fei said during a prelaunch press briefing.

Fei and Nie composed one of three, two-astronaut teams vying for the Shenzhou 6 spaceflight. Astronauts Zhai Zhigang, Wu Jie, Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng were the four other candidates for the mission, according to state media reports.

According to Xinhua reports, Fei and Nie will doff their 22-pound spacesuits and move between their crew and orbital modules - something Yang did not do during his day-long spaceflight.

Bigger, better, longer

Shenzhou 6 will mark the first time that Chinese astronauts will participate in the experiments flying aboard their spacecraft, Xinhua reported.

China's Shenzhou - or "Divine Vessel" - spacecraft is a three-part vehicle based partly on Russia's Soyuz, but heavily modernized and modified to suit the nation's spaceflight program. Like the Soyuz, Shenzhou vehicles contain an orbital module, a crew compartment, and a service module that houses propulsion and other vital systems. But it is only the crew-carrying section that returns to Earth intact.

Shenzhou 6 reportedly carries a series of advancements of its Shenzhou 5 predecessor, including a food heater, dishware and an "excretement collecting facility" - or space toilet - that are being used for the first time, according to Xinhua. Sleeping bags and a new data recorder - a spacecraft black box - are also being tested. The black box is faster than its Shenzhou 5 counterpart and contains more storage space, but at only half the size, Xinhua reported.

Earlier this week, media reports stated that Fei and Nie were not carrying seeds into space with them to be exposed to radiation. The admission prompted some space experts to question exactly what type of experiments the two astronauts will be performing during their multi-day trek.

"The Chinese are probably going to surprise us in terms of what the two guys will have been doing," China space specialist Dean Cheng, of the CNA Corp. in Arlington, Virginia, told SPACE.com before launch. "It's a way for China to make the point again that this is 'bigger and better, and that our firsts are more meaningful.'"

Cheng said that Earth observation and human physiology checks are potential experiments.

The live broadcast of Shenzhou 6's launch may be a sign that China's tight-lipped tradition with its space mission may be loosening, though official barred foreign press from the Jiuquan launch site and warned Chinese journalists that they might have to hand over their still or video footage should something go wrong, the Associated Press reported.

The 2003 launch of Shenzhou 5 was not broadcast live.

Astronaut league welcomes Chinese comrades

Before today's successful launch, the non-profit Association of Space Explorers (ASE), which is populated by past and present astronauts and cosmonauts, issued an invitation to China's professional space flyers - though the United Nations - to take part in their organization.

"As a member of the Association of Space Explorers and a three-time space flyer, I am absolutely convinced that the more human presence there is in orbital space and beyond, the better for all humanity in understanding our place in a very limited one planet environment," space shuttle payload specialist Charlie Walker told collectSPACE, a SPACE.com partner, during the 19th annual ASE Planetary Congress in Salt Lake City, Utah. "We have to look forward to a successful launch, and a successful return, of any and all taikonauts and Chinese flyers to space and back again."

Fei and Nie are slated to return to Earth in about five days and land their Shenzhou 6 crew capsule on the flat grasslands of Inner Mongolia. Today's space shot marked the 88th flight of a rocket from China's Long March family, Xinhua reported.

Robert Z. Pearlman, of collectSPACE, contributed to this article from the Salt Lake City, Utah.