Sunday, September 28, 2008

Ground Control to Commander Zhai

Taikonaut Zhai Zhigang (above right) climbed outside his Shenzhou 7 spacecraft this weekend in an experimental $4.4 million spacesuit. Aided by crew mate Liu Bomingalso, who stood in the open hatch wearing a proven Russian spacesuit, Zhai waved a Chinese flag as he hovered over the airlock. China's first spacewalk was being beamed on live TV across their country and around the world.

China's third human space mission ended this morning when the Shenzhou reentry vehicle parachuted safely to Earth in a grassy Mongolian plain. The mission's success sets the stage for a series of more ambitious flights in the next few years, including plans for a modest orbital laboratory. I wrote some about China's space plans in a column earlier this year. Here's a brief update.

A Congressional Research Service report says China's next two flights, Shenzhou 8 and 9, will ferry the module to orbit and allow the country to test rendezvous and docking procedures. The crew of Shenzhou 10 will then visit the orbiting laboratory. Those missions will give China the know-how it needs to operate an even larger space station, similar to a series of Salyut orbital outposts operated by the Soviet Union in the 1970s. China plans to orbit a Salyut-like outpost by 2020, after it completes development of a new, more powerful launch vehicle -- the ChangZheng (or "Long March") 5.

The CRS report also notes that China's Shenzhou spacecraft could eventually be used to ferry crews to and from the NASA-led International Space Station -- "if that becomes politically feasible in the future." That kind of partnership would indeed be tricky politics, but the looming U.S. dependence on Russian spacecraft after NASA's space shuttle fleet is retired in 2010 could make that a more attractive option in the next couple of years.

What about sending taikonauts to the Moon? NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has publicly speculated about a possible circumlunar flight -- no landing -- perhaps sometime in the next decade. Chinese space officials have denied they have any specific lunar plans, although they float the idea from time to time. Just today a spokesman's for the country's space program told reporters that the extra-vehicular activity on the Shenzhou 7 flight was a necessary stepping stone for a moon landing. But the spokesman quickly noted that "more investigation" was needed before China commit to any such course.

Here's a video from this weekend's EVA....

(Photo up top from China's official Xinhua news agency)

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