A giant leap for China

Beijing, Sep 27 | Updated: Sep 28 2008, 06:15am hrs
Astronaut Zhai Zhigang became the first Chinese man to walk in space on Saturday, clambering out of Chinas Shenzhou VII space craft in a technological feat that Beijing wants the world to marvel about. Im feeling quite well. I greet the Chinese people and the people of the world, Zhigang said as he climbed out of the craft, his historic achievement carried live on state television.

Zhigang, the 41-year-old son of a snack-seller chosen for the first extra-vehicular activity, unveiled a small Chinese flag, helped by colleague Liu Boming, who also briefly popped his head out of the capsule. Zhigang safely returned inside the craft after about 15 minutes. The walk marked the highpoint of Chinas third manned space journey, which has received blanket media coverage.

He wore a $4.4 million Chinese-made suit weighing 120-kg (265lb). Liu wore a Russian-made one and acted as a back-up.

Zhigang, tethered to the ship, slowly made his way towards a test sample of solid lubricant outside the capsule, took a sample and handed it to Liu, the official Xinhua news agency said, without explaining the aim of the test.

The risky space walk is a step towards Chinas longer-term goal of assembling a space lab and then a larger space station. The fast-growing Asian power wants to be sure of a say in how space and its potential resources are used.

Chinas Communist Party leaders are also celebrating the latest space mission, hailing the countrys achievements in a year in which Beijing has staged a successful Olympics and coped with a devastating earthquake in Sichuan in May. A Xinhua commentary praised the mission as adding an upbeat note to an eventful year references to events such as the earthquake. But Xinhua also said that China remained far behind the worlds two other main space powers, Russia and the US. Compared with these countries, China is still a late-comer and is only taking its starting steps, it said. Chinas space programme has come a long way since late leader Mao Zedong lamented that the country could not even launch a potato into space. Chinas first manned spaceflight was in 2003. A second, two-manned flight followed in 2005.

Reuters / Michelle Higgins