China counts down to Thursday space launch

JIUQUAN, China (Reuters) - China will send its third manned mission into space on Thursday evening on a mission which will include its first space walk, the government said on Wednesday.

The Shenzhou-7 manned spaceship and the Long-March II-F rocket sit on the launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, Gansu province September 20, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer

The Shenzhou VII will lift off from the Jiuquan space center in a remote desert area of the northwestern province of Gansu between 9:07 p.m. (9:07 a.m. EDT) and 10:27 p.m. (10:27 a.m. EDT), mission spokesman Wang Zhaoyao told a news conference.

Fuelling of the rocket has already begun, meaning the launch is “irreversible,” the official Xinhua news agency said.

In October 2003, China became the third country to put a man in space with its own rocket, after the former Soviet Union and the United States. It sent two more astronauts on a five-day flight on its Shenzhou VI craft in October 2005.

China named three men -- Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng, all aged 42 -- for the mission.

“All of this training has been a massive test of the health and psychology of us, the astronauts,” Jing said, in comments carried live on state television.

“We’ve overcome hardship, won over ourselves and challenged the extreme limits,” he added, dressed in a blue jumpsuit and seated next to his two colleagues.

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Last year, China sent its first lunar probe into orbit. China’s longer-term goals include establishing a space station and landing on the moon.

On this mission, two of the three “taikonauts” -- the Chinese name for astronaut, taken from the Mandarin word for “space” -- will don suits ready for a space walk, spokesman Wang told a small group of Chinese and foreign reporters.

“One taikonaut will get out of the cabin and take back the test samples loaded outside the module,” he added. “After the extra-vehicular activity is completed, the spacecraft will release a small monitoring satellite.”

One taikonaut would wear a Chinese-made suit, and the other a Russian one, Wang said, although it was not clear which would be used on the spacewalk.

“Extra-vehicular activity is a big leap for the manned space program,” he said. “The process cannot be simulated completely on the ground and some of the newly developed products are to be tested in flight for the first time.”

The craft will land in the northern region of Inner Mongolia, he added, without giving a date.

In the future, China may also train foreign astronauts, Xinhua quoted Chen Shanguang, the head of the China Astronaut Research and Training Center, as saying.

“China’s two successful manned space missions so far showed the country’s technical ability of independently training astronauts and it was one of the centre’s goals to train international astronauts in future,” Chen said.

“International cooperation is an inevitable trend in manned space flights, which are large-scale projects with complex technologies and huge investment,” he added.

China’s space program has come a long way since late leader Mao Zedong, founder of Communist China in 1949, lamented that the country could not even launch a potato into space.

Writing by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Beijing newsroom; Editing by Nick Macfie and Paul Tait