In a sign of China‘s growing technological prowess, the Chinese space agency will soon launch its third manned mission into space. The Shenzhou 7 mission, to launch as early as Thursday, will be the first to carry a full complement of three astronauts, one of whom will perform China’s first space walk, or EVA for “extra-vehicular activity” [AP]. In 2003, China became the third nation to successfully launch astronauts into orbit, joining the United States and Russia.
The Shenzhou VII crew capsule will be boosted aloft by the Long March 2F rocket, which has 66 consecutive successful launches. During the spacewalk, a companion satellite will fly nearby to relay real-time images of the astronaut’s daring feat to the eager crowds back home. If all goes as planned, experts say the mission will be not just a technological achievement, but also a triumph of propaganda. “China wants to get the flight in full 3-D glory to maximize the publicity,” says Eric Hagt, China programme director at the World Security Institute in Washington DC. “This is going to be the Hollywood mission” [Nature News].
China’s first spacewalk marks a break with its reliance on Russian technology, as the astronaut will use a Chinese-designed suit. “This is a big deal,” says Joan Johnson-Freese, a national security specialist…. “Both the United States and the Soviets had trouble with these EVA suits and there was an instance on the Shuttle where an EVA had to be cancelled because of spacesuit difficulties.” According to a detailed account in Sichuan News, China spent about 160 million yuan (US$23.4 million) over eight years to develop the suit. Still, the Chinese crew is bringing a Russian-designed backup just in case [Nature News].
China is expected to begin work on a space station in the near future, and is widely believed to be working towards both robotic and manned missions to the moon, although no such missions have been officially announced.