Chinese Astronauts Complete First Spacewalk
Chinese astronaut Zhai Zhigang waves from outside his Shenzhou 7 spacecraft September 27, 2008. He became his country's first spacewalker.
Credit: China National Space Administration

A Chinese astronaut has completed his nation's first ever foray into space beyond the confines of a spacecraft.

Zhai Zhigang, the lead Chinese astronaut, or taikonaut, of the Shenzhou 7 mission, spent about 20 minutes floating outside his vehicle. During the spacewalk, which began at about 4:40 a.m. ET (0840 GMT) and ended at 4:58 (0858 GMT), he retrieved a small sample of solid lubricant from the outside of the spacecraft that had been placed there before launch. The excursion was broadcast live.

Zhai, along with crewmates Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng, launched into space Thursday aboard a Long March 2F rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China's Gansu province. The mission is China's third manned spaceflight.

Spacewalk activities

To begin the spacewalk, Zhai exited from the hatch in the de-pressurized orbital module.

?I have been out of the hatch, I?m feeling good,? Zhai said immediately after stepping out, according to the CCTV official Chinese television announcer?s translation. ?To all the people in my country and the world, my greetings. My country, please have faith in me. My team will finish this mission.?

He proudly waved the red flag of the People?s Republic of China in space to mark the achievement.

Liu assisted from inside the orbital module, clad in a Russian-made Orlan spacesuit and occasionally peeking his head out of the hatch to hand Zhai materials. Jing spent the duration in the pressurized re-entry module, which is due to eventually carry the taikonauts home.

In short order, Zhai had retrieved the test sample from the spacecraft?s hull and passed it back inside to Liu. After about 20 minutes he stepped back inside the spacecraft feet first, and the two taikonauts closed the hatch.

Landmark achievement

Successfully completing a spacewalk solidifies China's status as a space power, and helps the nation move toward its goal of establishing a more permanent presence in space.

"We?re probably looking at an effort to do a manned docking [in the future] and eventually a spacelab," said Dean Cheng, China analyst with Alexandria, Va.-based think tank CNA Corp. "This is part of the progression toward that end. And if the Chinese really are intending to put a man on the moon, then this becomes even more essential."

In addition to proving China's ability to maneuver in space, the spacewalk showed that China can produce reliable and safe space equipment. During his space venture, Zhai wore a new Chinese-built spacesuit, dubbed Feitian (Chinese for "fly the sky").

The suit, which reportedly cost 30 million yuan (about $4.4 million), did its job protecting Zhai from the harsh temperatures and radiation of space. It has 10 layers of insulation, weighs about 265 pounds (120 kg), and takes up to 15 hours to assemble and put on, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported.

Another important feature of the spacewalk was the fact that it was broadcast live, which represents not only China's technological prowess, but its growing confidence and increasing efforts at transparency.

"They are opening up," Cheng told SPACE.com. "Perhaps one of the lessons from the Olympics is that good things come from being open."

The Shenzhou 7 mission is scheduled to come back to Earth Sunday.