BEIJING (Reuters) - China readied for its next great leap into space on Thursday, with the Shenzhou VII craft primed to blast off with three astronauts and plans for a space walk that will underscore the country’s technological ambitions.
The flight will be 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. This one will feature China’s first space walk, probably on Friday.
China sent two more astronauts on a five-day flight on its Shenzhou VI craft in October 2005.
Officials and state media have been hailing the Shenzhou VII’s scheduled feats as national triumphs, crowning the big gold haul at the Olympics and dramatizing China’s desire to rise as a space power.
The rocket is due to lift off some time between 9:07 p.m. and 10:27 p.m.
“We have the confidence, determination and ability to make the nation’s first step in outer space,” one of the astronauts, Jing Haipeng, told a news conference on Wednesday.
The ability to do what is also called “extra-vehicular activity” is essential for China’s long-term goals of an orbiting station in the next decade and possibly a visit to the moon.
“The current manned spacecraft is just a tool toward a space station,” said Jiao Weixin, a space scientist at Peking University. “It’s laying a foundation for the future.”
The Shenzhou VII spectacle will also mark a patriotic high point for China in a year dominated by the Beijing Olympic Games and the country’s top gold medal count.
With a name meaning “sacred vessel,” the Shenzhou program is secretively run through military and government agencies and its budget is murky. In 2003, officials said it had cost 18 billion yuan ($2.6 billion) up to then.
The Shenzhou VII and the Long March rocket that will throw it into space stood ready at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in remote northwest Gansu province, Xinhua news agency reported.
China has arrayed five satellite tracking ships to follow the craft’s journey of three days or so, and helicopters and vehicles are ready to meet it on returning to earth in Inner Mongolia, a region in northern China, Xinhua said.
Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Ken Wills and David Fox