Reports: China Chooses Fighter Pilot as First Spacewalker
An artist's illustration of Chinese astronauts spacewalking outside their Shenzhou spacecraft. Future Shenzhou missions will feature spacewalks ahead of orbital rendezvous and docking demonstrations.
Credit: China National Space Administration

China has revealed the identities of its first spacewalker and his two crewmates set to launch on the country?s third manned spaceflight next week, according to state media reports.

Chinese Air Force fighter pilot Zhai Zhigang, 42, will be the first Chinese spacewalker during the upcoming Shenzhou 7 mission with crewmates Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng, The People Daily Online reported Tuesday. The mission is slated to launch Sept. 25 from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China?s Gansu Province.

According to the wire service AFP, Zhai is married and has one son. He will don a $15 million (100 million yuan) spacesuit for a planned 40-minute spacewalk that is slated to include the deployment of small satellite capable of broadcasting images to Earth via a CCD camera.

The Shenzhou 7 crew is China?s largest to date. The country launched its first astronaut, Yang Liwei, aboard the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft in 2003. A two-man mission, Shenzhou 6 flown by astronauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng, followed in October 2005.

Like Zhai, Liu and Jing are also 42 years old and fighter pilots with the People?s Liberation Army, AFP reported. They served as backups for China?s Shenzhou 6 mission.

According to China?s CCTV television network, Shenzhou 7 is slated to launch in late evening on Sept. 25, with landing set for Sept. 28.

China is the third nation after Russia and the U.S. to develop spacecraft and boosters capable of launching humans into space. The country?s space program is a source of national pride and a symbol of China?s technical prowess.

Shenzhou spacecraft are based on Russia?s Soyuz vehicles, but have been modernized and modified by Chinese engineers. They consist of three segments — a crew capsule, orbital module and service module — and use solar panels to generate power.

The orbital module has its own solar panels and can remain in orbit independently of the crew and propulsion modules, unlike Russian Soyuz vehicles. But Shenzhou vehicles do return to Earth on land like Soyuz, with the spacecraft landing under parachutes and retrorockets on the plains of Inner Mongolia.

Chinese space officials have said in the past that the country?s stepping stone approach to human spaceflight geared toward the development of a manned space station by 2010. Two follow-on missions, Shenzhou 8 and Shenzhou 9, are expected to play a part in that goal, China Daily reported.

While China gears up for the launch of Shenzhou 7, the country is also looking to double its current cadre of 14 astronauts, also known as taikonauts. A new class of astronauts has already begun training and is expected to add another 14 spaceflyers to the Chinese corps, state media reported.