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China's first spacewalker
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08:01, September 28, 2008

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Although enclosed in a bulky spacesuit with face covered, Chinese astronaut Zhai Zhigang is becoming a familiar figure to all Chinese as a history maker.

Zhai's 20-minute stay in outer space was witnessed by millions of Chinese on the earth through live broadcast on Saturday afternoon.

Struggling to open the door, waving to the camera mounted on the spaceship's service module, holding up the national flag, handing the test sample to his colleague and hobbling back to the module, his every move was taking the breath of those sitting anxiously in front of their TVs.

"As a man with China's manned space program, watching Zhai Zhigang walking in space is like a mother watching her tottering child," said Deng Yibing, chief engineer of the China Astronaut Research and Training Center. "Even though the steps were still a little bit staggering, I am so happy and satisfied."

In a phone conversation with Chinese President Hu Jintao two hours after his spacewalk, Zhai looked confident and radiant on the screen at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center.

"I felt superb," said Zhai. "The process of taking on the Feitian spacesuit went smooth. In the vast space, I felt proud of our motherland."

Later, he was seen lying back on his seat, chatting with his two colleagues with smiles on his face.

Despite bearing a highly risky task and great expectation from his countrymen, Zhai is going easy from the beginning.

On Wednesday when the three-member crew debuted at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, he said in front of the TV camera, "Physically, mentally and technically, we are well prepared. Motherland and compatriots, please trust us."

Zhai made a V sign during the launch and played with the manual after the successful blastoff. People also watched him skillfully unpacking and assembling the complicated spacesuit and training hard before the walk.

The confident and relaxed attitude came from long and tough training of a veteran air force pilot and astronaut.

It took the 42-year-old Zhai 10 years to the short spacewalk. Like all his colleagues and astronauts in previous two manned space programs, he had served the country's air force before being selected into the program. He had made a safe flight record of 950hours as a pilot.

Among the 14 members selected in the program in 1998, he was the only one that entered the final candidate list for three times.

In 2003 and 2005, Zhai was dropped out. "He never looked upset," said Huang Weifen, deputy chief designer of the program's astronauts system, "But each time he would work much harder than before as if the motive inside him was growing stronger against every failure."

The chance fell on him this time due to his outstanding professional and psychological performance, said Huang. "He is mentally strong and good at handling emergencies."

Born in a farmer's family in northeastern Heilongjiang Province and the youngest of six children, Zhai might have never dreamed of wearing a spacesuit worth of 30 million yuan and strolling in space when he was a boy.

He thought of dropping out from school when his farther was sick and the whole family lived on his mother's small business to sell fried melon seeds. It was his mother that stopped him and encouraged him to continue school and join the air force.

"Our mother left the most influence on him," said his brother Zhiqiang. "He loved her very much."

Zhai has become a hero in his hometown. His posters were at all bus stations and even on billboards in the streets. His brother's home was decorated with balloons, ribbons and flags on Thursday when the spacecraft was launched.

Due to preparation for the space program, his family have not seen him for a long time. "We all wish him to successfully fulfill his task and come back safe," the brother said.

Among the three astronauts, Zhai is the most outgoing. He likes dancing and is good at calligraphy.

"He is a loving husband, lovely father and good son," said Zhang Shujing, Zhai's wife.

Zhang and their son Zhai Tianxiong watched the launch at the control center in Jiuquan on Thursday.

"I was nervous. My hands sweat," said his son in an on-line interview a day after the launch. "I learned he would be on board of the spaceship only a few days earlier than the public."

Recalling his father's farewell words, the boy said Zhai did not say anything serious. "He did not make any promise to us."

Wearing a pair of glass, the boy in middle school seemed not to follow his father's footstep. "I do not think of becoming an astronaut."

Source: Xinhua

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