Chinese astronaut gives lesson from Tiangong-1 space orbiter

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 June, 2013, 4:44am

Welcome to Space Physics 101 - taught by three astronauts floating in zero gravity aboard the Tiangong-1 orbiter.

This was the scene that greeted 60 million mainland students yesterday morning in a live broadcast from space.

Before the lesson began, there were some concerns about how Major Wang Yaping , the youngest astronaut, would fare.

Barbara Morgan, who held the first space lesson, from the International Space Station (ISS) in 2007, was a high school teacher before joining Nasa.

Wang was a military pilot who spent most of her time flying cargo planes after graduation and has no teaching experience.

Adding to the pre-class concerns was that she seemed shy when talking with media before take-off.

But she came across as a well-spoken and competent teacher and won praise from students, teachers and parents. Her two male colleagues appeared to be nervous in front of the camera, making Wang's debut seem all the more impressive.

With her first question, Wang had the students hooked. "How do I know whether I have grown fat?" she asked.

Wang then instructed Major General Nie Haisheng , her commander, to climb over a measurement device and read his weight aloud - 74kg.

She went on to give a detailed explanation of how she could reach this figure, in a weightless environment, by applying Isaac Newton's laws of motion.

The lesson borrowed some classic content from Nasa's "Teaching From Space" programme, using items such as a pendulum and gyroscope. The students were impressed.

"I knew that the ball would float in the air, but I could not help but gasp when it really happened," said Li Jieyun , a high school student in Guangdong who watched the lesson live on television.

"I have seen similar experiments on Nasa's website [the US space agency], but seeing it done by the hand of a Chinese astronaut and hearing the explanation in our own language offers a completely different experience," she said.

Students in Beijing were also able to ask the astronauts questions. Topping the list were concerns about UFOs, space debris and space sickness.

There were, however, some complaints about too much propaganda in the event.

The Ministry of Education ordered more than 80,000 schools to suspend classes for the event, and some students had to remain planted in their seats for hours to be filmed by state media. But for China's space effort, which remains under the strict control of the People's Liberation Army, yesterday's successful space lesson was a big step forward in terms of transparency.

A senior satellite designer with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, who wished to remain anonymous, said he could not imagine authorities allowing such an event a decade ago.

He said: "Unlike the space projects in the US, which need substantial support from the public and congress for the budget, our space projects carry no such concerns because our budget is determined by the government and military alone."

But he added: "A space lesson can light a fire in many young people, who will become the new generation of space explorers."