China takes small step in conquest of final frontier

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 September, 2008, 12:00am

Astronaut Zhai Zhigang's brief stroll over the hull of the Shenzhou VII spacecraft yesterday marked a milestone for China's space programme. The domestically developed spacesuit that the mission commander wore has proved its worth. The first Chinese spacewalk in history lasted about 20 minutes, but it represented a major advance in space exploration for the country. Thousands of China's most talented engineers and scientists have contributed to the mission. The nation can take pride in their achievement.

Admittedly, the space manoeuvre yesterday was not a technological breakthrough. The former Soviet Union and the United States achieved the capability decades ago. Today, Nasa astronauts have perfected complex repair and engineering works by taking spacewalks. Nevertheless, mastery of the technique is essential. Over the next few years, China's space efforts will focus on building a space station and landing on the moon. These require developing the technology and expertise in spacecraft rendezvous and docking, in which spacewalks will play a crucial role.

The walk Colonel Zhai executed went smoothly, though it was slightly shorter than originally scheduled. After spending hours putting on the multimillion-yuan spacesuit, Colonel Zhai, a fighter pilot, squeezed through a small exit and became the first Chinese national to step into outer space. He waved to the camera, with the national flag in hand and planet Earth in the background. It was a breathtaking moment, a reminder of the wonder of space and that its exploration is always worthy of humankind's greatest efforts, however costly and dangerous. The colonel took out a piece of equipment, tested it and returned to the capsule, to the relief of his crewmates Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng .

People at ground control cheered. Having invested so much of the nation's resources and prestige in the programme, they were no doubt relieved that the most important part of the mission had gone without a hitch. They must have been confident to broadcast the entire manoeuvre live on camera. As with the spectacular Beijing Olympics last month, the latest space mission serves to showcase the country's emerging superpower status. With each breakthrough, China demonstrates its progress as a technologically advanced nation.

China has so much to contribute if it is allowed to co-operate fully with other technologically developed countries. Nasa chief Michael Griffin has said China and the US could co-operate in flying to the moon, adding that the success of the International Space Station required co-operation among nations. Yet China continues to be excluded. This should now end. Co-operation between the world's greatest space power and its latest spacefaring nation will be cause to celebrate humanity's conquest of the final frontier.