Astronauts get stellar send-off
When the three astronauts of the Shenzhou-IX mission emerged from their quarantined residence at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre at about 3.30pm yesterday, hundreds of people cheered, waved flowers and sang a victory song as military bands drummed in the background
While their attire and movements might have been planned, the well-wishers' excitement upon seeing the three crew members heading into the shuttle bus that would take them to the launch pad seemed genuine and spontaneous.
Although the mission carries its risks, not least sitting atop more than 400 tonnes of flammable rocket fuel in the heat of summer waiting to take off, the crew can draw reassurance from the solid track record of China's manned space project. Since Colonel Yang Liwei became the first Chinese astronaut to enter orbit in 2003, six others have been sent up and all returned safely.
But the mission is unprecedented for the Chinese space programme. While the three-man crew aboard the Shenzhou-VII had to perform the first space walk by a Chinese astronaut, this time around the crew faces a series of technical and psychological pressures.
They will be the first in the programme to make a manned docking with the Tiangong-I module, a highly technical procedure that brings two vessels together in high-speed orbit. Two of the astronauts will then be required to spend a week inside the primitive module, conducting tests, while the third astronaut remains inside the capsule.
Despite the tough tests ahead, back at the launch centre the smiling crew looked as happy as the crowd. No hesitation or nervousness could be detected in their eyes.
Major Liu Yang lost a bit of graceful gait in the bulky spacesuit. Compared to her older, physically stronger male crewmates, she had to move her feet towards the shuttle van with more effort, obviously struggling with the heavy life-support system attached to the suit.
But she easily won over the crowd with her grin. And, almost like a rock star, wherever she turned to greet the spectators, they broke into frenzied applause and screams.
Senior Colonel Jing Haipeng, the crew commander, looked as relaxed as if he were going for a weekend picnic. He took part in the spacewalk mission in 2008 and is the most experienced astronaut among the three.
He told his commander, General Chang Wanquan, they were ready and had full confidence that they would complete the mission perfectly.
Liu Wang's expression had more relief than tension. This mission will undoubtedly be the 43-year-old senior colonel's final chance to go into space. He was among the first batch of astronauts selected along with Yang Liwei and many of his teammates will not have a chance to go into space due to their age.
Chen Shanguang, director of the astronaut training centre, deemed the astronauts' pre-flight physical and mental condition to be 'good'. 'I saw them taking a walk in the garden this morning. They were all talking and laughing as usual,' he said.
As the crew headed to the launch pad, the loudest cheers and screams came from the technical support staff and their relatives, who made up the bulk of the crowd. Thousands of people from a variety of backgrounds, including some indigenous Mongolian herdsmen who have lived in the area for decades, stood along the road, joining in the festive farewell.