BEIJING // A Chinese astronaut completed a space walk today as the Asian power became the third nation to perform the feat after the United States and the former Soviet Union.
Mission commander Zhai Zhigang left the Shenzhou VII spacecraft at about 4.45pm Beijing time (11.45am UAE) to float in orbit for just under 15 minutes, according to the live state TV transmission. "I feel well," said Mr Zhai, the leader of the Shenzhou VII's three-man crew, waving to a camera outside the spacecraft. "I am greeting the Chinese people and the people of the world." The space walk was the highlight of the 68-hour voyage - China's third manned foray into space - and considered an important step towards building a space station, China's next major ambition in space. In a highly symbolic move, Mr Zhai waved a small Chinese flag shortly after climbing out of the spacecraft 343 kilometres over the Earth. Tethered to the craft with two safety wires, Mr Zhai, 41, slowly moved towards a test sample of solid lubricant placed outside the orbital module, Xinhua news agency said. He took the sample and handed it over to fellow astronaut Liu Boming, who stayed in the orbital module and closely monitored Mr Zhai's moves. The move was a drill intended to replicate the type of task that future space walkers will have to perform. President Hu Jintao had appeared at the Beijing Aerospace Control Centre to watch the live transmission of Mr Zhai's spacewalk, Xinhua news agency said. The spacewalk had been eagerly anticipated, while state media had also pointed out the risk associated with the activity. An "intensive psychological shock" would be unavoidable once the astronaut left the capsule, Xinhua said earlier, citing Yang Liwei, who piloted China's maiden space flight in 2003. The astronauts, who took off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the desert of north-west China late on Thursday, had passed most of their first day in space preparing for the walk. Yesterday, Mr Zhai and his colleague Liu Boming spent 12 hours unpacking and assembling the special China-made space suit that must be used during the walk outside the Shenzhou craft. After China sent its first man into space in 2003, it followed up with a two-man mission in 2005. The astronauts also had time today to enjoy the view, witnessing 16 sunrises during their first 24 hours in orbit, and to sample the 80-dish menu they brought with them on their 68-hour mission. The Shenzhou VII is scheduled to land in the northern Inner Mongolia region after the mission is completed. *AFP