JIUQUAN, China (Reuters) - China’s third manned space mission blasted off from a remote desert site on Thursday on a trip designed to showcase its technological mastery, including via its first ever space walk.
The Shenzhou VII shot up into a chilly, inky black sky at the Jiuquan launch center in the northwestern province of Gansu at exactly 9:10 p.m. (1310 GMT) carrying three astronauts in a take-off that was broadcast live on state television.
It entered earth orbit about 20 minutes later, though will not reach its final orbit for a few more hours.
“The solar panel has unfolded and we feel well,” one of the astronauts said, according to the official Xinhua news agency. In images beamed to mission control, it said the crew “looked calm, waving their hands to the camera from time to time.” One “was seen flipping through the operation manual and making a gesture of victory with two fingers up during the launch.”
President Hu Jintao, speaking to the control room, called the launch “another great feat in the Chinese people’s scaling of the peak of world science and technology.”
“The successful launch of the Shenzhou VII spacecraft signifies an initial victory for this manned spaceflight mission,” he added in televised remarks.
It is China’s third manned space venture since October 2003, when it joined Russia and the United States as the only countries to have sent astronauts into space.
The space walk is expected on Saturday.
“The people of China will leave their first footprint in space — this footprint which cannot be seen will certainly be an advance that is hard to forget and will forever be remembered by the Chinese nation,” Xinhua said.
Officials and state media have hailed the prospective feats as national triumphs, crowning the successes of the Beijing Olympics and dramatizing the country’s broader ambitions.
“This will be a very outward show of Chinese power,” said Kevin Pollpeter, an expert on China’s space program at the Defense Group Inc in Washington.
“The eventual goal is to build a space station. For them, that’s become one of the trappings of being a great power.”
A mission engineer, Zhou Jianping, said the timing of the space walk could be changed, depending on how long it took the astronauts to adjust, Xinhua said. The ability to do what is also called “extra-vehicular activity” is essential for China’s long-term goals of assembling an orbiting station in the next decade and possibly making a visit to the moon.
“I think it represents China’s development,” said Lei Xuemin, watching the launch in a Beijing restaurant. “I personally feel that China is now very strong, and I feel very proud.”
China’s space program has come a long way since Mao Zedong, founder of Communist China in 1949, lamented that the country could not even launch a potato into space.
But its rapidly advancing program has raised disquiet in Western capitals and in Tokyo that China has military ambitions in space, especially after a Chinese anti-satellite missile test last year. Beijing rejects the charges.
“China always advocates the peaceful use of outer space,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said. “The ultimate goal of China’s manned space projects is to explore and peacefully use outer space, boost national economic development and people’s well-being.”
The Shenzhou VII mission may also help draw public attention away from a milk powder scandal that has made thousands of infants ill and once again blighted the “made in China” brand.
China’s official media have lovingly described countless details of the mission. The astronauts will have a choice of nearly 80 foods, including spicy “kung-pao” chicken cooked with a “new method,” nutritionist Chen Bin told Xinhua. They will also take traditional Chinese medicine made of more than 10 herbs to treat space motion sickness, Xinhua reported.
Yet engineers overseeing the flight warned it carried risks.
Zhang Jianqi, a chief engineer, told Xinhua keeping three men aloft and sending one outside the capsule over 340 km (210 miles) above the Earth would be a “big test.” “Sending up three astronauts is a jump in both quantity and quality,” he said.
Chief astronaut Zhai Zhigang is an air force pilot who grew up in dirt-poor hardship with five siblings in the country’s far northeast. His mother sold fried melon seeds as snacks to help pay his way through school, local media reports said.
With a name meaning “sacred vessel,” the Shenzhou program is secretively run through military and government agencies and its budget is unclear. In 2003, officials said it had cost 18 billion yuan ($2.6 billion) up to then.
Additional reporting by Chris Buckley, Yu Le, Liu Zhen and Reuters Television; Writing by Ben Blanchard, editing by Mark Trevelyan