China’s first spacewalk tomorrow
The three-manned Shenzhou VII spacecraft is scheduled to take off today. Its mission includes China’s first spacewalk. Experts note that China’s space programme is led by the military and that its data can be used for military purposes. A Chinese space station is already on the drawing board.
Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Shenzhou (Celestial vessel) VII spacecraft is primed to blast off this evening from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in remote northwest Gansu province. It is the first space mission with three astronauts on board and will feature China's first spacewalk (perhaps tomorrow) at 341 kilometres above the earth.

With pride media and politicians are celebrating the fact that China along with Russia and the United States is the only other country to have sent astronauts into space.

Smiling faces and quotes from the three astronauts were all over the place.

“Shenzhou VII, you are the pride of the nation,” said one message on the Xinhua news agency's website. “Overcome hardship as China takes off,” said another.

“We have the confidence, determination and ability to make the nation's first step in outer space,” one of the astronauts, Jing Haipeng, said, almost echoing the acclaimed performance of Chinese athletes at the Olympics.

The commander of the space mission, People's Liberation Army Colonel Zhai Zhigang, said that he and his crew were "physically, psychologically and technically ready" for their journey. All three are fighter pilots and members of the Communist Party.

This is the mainland’s third manned mission in space. Two astronauts went on a five-day flight on Shenzhou VI craft in October 2005.

During the upcoming mission, which will last at least 60 hours, the astronauts will carry out various control manoeuvres and some scientific experiments like relaying data links through a telecommunications satellite, the Zhongxing I.

But plans go further. “The current manned spacecraft is just a tool towards a space station,” said Jiao Weixin, a space scientist at Peking University. “It's laying a foundation for the future.”

The mission is also a great success for the military which is engaged in a secret space programme officially that cost 18 billion yuan (US.6 billion) up to 2003.

Analysts note that data collected from such projects can be used in both military and civilian sectors, especially since rocket that would carry the three astronauts into space was more powerful and the spacecraft much heavier than the ones used in previous missions.

Each crew member has a specific assignment. Whilst Colonel Zhai goes for a spacewalk, one would be in the airlock module as backup, and the third would stay in the re-entry capsule to steer the spacecraft.

“Beijing's current missile power system could launch some super-heavy vehicles, like military satellites to collect intelligence, as military satellites are much heavier than civilian ones,” Taipei-based military expert Andrew Yang Nien-dzu told the South China Morning Post.

And with technology enabling a three-manned mission Beijing can “make a great move towards setting up a space station in the future.”

The mission will let the mainland develop cutting edge technology and help it reduce its dependence on imported (especially US) technology.

A missile test last year in which an old weather satellite was shot down showed China taking a leading role in space technology, sparking fears of a space race.