Shenzhou 6 Taikonauts Achieve Firsts for China

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The crew of China’s Shenzhou 6 spacecraft achieved a number of firsts during the country’s second manned spaceflight. The two taikonauts, as astronauts are known in China, Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng, both left their seats and floated in space even changing positions at one point. They also felt comfortable enough to get out of their flight suits during the mission. While Fei worked in the orbital module, Nie used a digital camera to take photographs of the flight, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported, adding that both taikonauts were expected to have taken off their 10-kilogram space suits.

“It suggests that the orbital module is functioning as expected and that’s good,” Dean Cheng, a China space specialist with CNA Corp. in Arlington, Va., said Oct. 12. “It certainly means that the Shenzhou is going to be able to keep its crew occupied.”

Shenzhou 5, carried only one taikonaut, Lt. Col. Yang Liwei, who spent 21 and a half hours in space strapped into his seat and in his spaceflight suit. Yang orbited the Earth 14 times before landing safely.

“This second mission expands on [China’s] ability to test life support systems,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, who follows China’s space efforts and chair of National Security Studies at the United States Naval War College in Newport, R.I. “Now they’ve established that [Shenzhou 5] was not a one-time deal.”

Johnson-Freese said Shenzhou 6 pushes China past its first phase of space development and on a path that likely will lead to ever-more sophisticated demonstrations, including spacewalks and dockings and ultimately a hook-up of its orbital modules into a flying space lab.