Liftoff! China Launches Third Manned Spaceflight
The Shenzhou 7 manned spacecraft launches from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Gansu province on Thursday Sept. 25, 2008, in this photo distributed by the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua.
Credit: AP Photo/Xinhua, Li Gang

China has successfully rocketed three astronauts to space on a mission set to include the nation's first spacewalk.

The Shenzhou 7 spacecraft launched around 9:10 a.m. ET (1310 GMT) aboard a 19-story Long March 2F rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China's Gansu province.

The mission marks China's third manned spaceflight, five years after its initial 2003 liftoff. The nation is only the third country, after the United States and Russia, to independently launch people into space.

"For those who are just tuning in, it is a statement that China is a space power that needs to be reckoned with," Dean Cheng, China analyst with Alexandria, Va.-based think tank CNA Corp. told SPACE.com before launch.

Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng, all 42-year-old Chinese fighter pilots, are China's first three-member crew to journey to space.

"The successful launch marked the first victory of the Shenzhou-7 mission," Chinese president Hu Jintao said after launch, Xinhua reported. "On behalf of the Party Central Committee, the State Council and the Central Military Commission, I'd like to extend warm congratulations to all work staff and army forces participating in the mission."

The planned five-day mission is due land in Inner Mongolia on Sept. 28.

First spacewalk

The mission is slated to include a 40-minute foray into space for one of the three Chinese astronauts, or taikonauts. During the activity, which could happen Friday or Saturday, state media reported, the spacewalker is set to retrieve scientific experiments placed outside the spacecraft and deploy a small satellite capable of sending images back to Earth.

The spacewalk will be a test of China's technological prowess, especially its newly built Feitan spacesuit, which reportedly cost 30 million yuan (about $4.4 million). The suit is designed to provide a pressurized atmosphere, oxygen and temperature control, and communication ability. It also protects astronauts from radiation, micrometeoroids and other harmful particles in space.

China has announced plans to broadcast the spacewalk live, in a gesture of confidence and transparency.

The Chinese spacewalkers are due to be "supported by Russian experts throughout the mission," the Associated Press quoted Wang Zhaoyao, spokesperson for China's manned space program, as saying. "The successful cooperation on the Shenzhou 7 manned mission will create favorable conditions for future cooperation between our two countries."

The Shenzhou spacecraft itself is based on Russia's Soyuz vehicle, but modernized by Chinese engineers. The Chinese spacecraft includes an orbital module, a crew compartment, and a service module that houses propulsion and other vital systems. Only the crew-carrying section is designed to return to Earth intact.

Historic step

A successful spacewalk would be an important step toward China's goals of building an orbiting space laboratory and possibly even landing on the moon one day.

"It's another step along the way," Cheng said in a telephone interview. "The issue is not just the EVA [spacewalk], but the ability to actively operate in space."

The Shenzhou 7 flight follows the successful October 2005 launch of China's Shenzhou 6 mission, which took two Chinese astronauts into space for five days. The nation's first manned spaceflight, the 2003 Shenzhou 5 mission, made China the third country ever, after Russia and the United States, to independently launch a person into space.