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China's Newest Space Heroes

2022-04-22 10:17:00 Source:China Focus Author:Anthony Moretti
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Chinese astronaut Wang Yaping handed her 5-year-old daughter a star a few days ago. And in fulfilling her promise to her daughter, Wang also was sending an important message to Chinese boys and girls.

Wang returned to Earth on April 16, along with her colleagues Zhai Zhigang, who was commander of the Shenzhou-13 mission, and Ye Gangfu. Six months earlier, and just before the trio blasted off into space, Wang told her daughter that she would bring a star home to her. As mother and daughter embraced, there was no doubt that Chinese children – boys and especially girls – were being told that they also must reach for the stars in whatever they attempt to do in the years to come.

Zhai, Wang and Ye are now national heroes, and their story will be one Chinese hear about for generations. No, they were not the first Chinese astronauts in space. Rather, what made their mission so memorable was that they spent more than 180 days there, longer than any of their predecessors. In addition, Wang became the first Chinese woman to take part in a spacewalk.

The Chinese population was dazzled by images of Wang and Zhai back in November when they completed their more than 6-hour spacewalk, which in science speak is called an “Extravehicular Activity” (EVA). A leading Chinese space official commended Wang for her bravery and proudly announced that more and many Chinese female astronauts will complete similar EVAs in the future.

Screen image taken at Beijing Aerospace Control Center on Jan. 8, 2022 shows the Shenzhou-13 astronauts in China's space station core module conducting the manual rendezvous and docking experiment with the Tianzhou-2 cargo craft. (Photo/Xinhua)

Along with Ye, the trio used some of their time in orbit to talk to Chinese school students throughout the country, including those in Beijing, the Xinjiang and Tibet regions, and from the Hong Kong and Macao special administrative regions.

According to Global Times, during the second address, which took place in March, Wang dazzled the students: “One of the most impressive experiments was the ‘ice ball’ experiment. As taikonaut Wang Yaping showed, while the space station maintains a fixed ambient temperature at all times, she can transform water into ‘ice’ with only a ‘tap.’ It turned out to be a crystallization effect caused by the micro-gravity environment in space.”

I have told friends here in the United States that the Shenzhou-13 mission carries the same prestige in China that Neil Armstrong’s and his colleagues’ mission did here in 1969. Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon, and the words and images from that moment are still shared with American school children. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins are the names many Americans can rattle off with immediacy when they are asked to name the Apollo-11 crew. In years to come, Chinese men and women will quickly say Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping and Ye Gangfu when asked about the crew of Shenzhou-13.

Over the past roughly 50 years, space exploration has been dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. But China continues to prove it will be a, and perhaps the prominent nation in helping the world better understand space throughout the 21st century.

The return capsule of the Shenzhou-13 manned spaceship lands successfully at the Dongfeng landing site in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Apr. 16, 2022. (Photo/Xinhua)

The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China released a white paper in late January of this year. Titled “China’s Space Program: A 2021 Perspective”, the document outlined previous successes and affirmed many of the country’s goals for space exploration in the coming years: “In the next five years, China will continue to improve the capacity and performance of its space transport system, and move faster to upgrade launch vehicles. It will further expand the launch vehicle family, send into space new-generation manned carrier rockets and high-thrust solid-fuel carrier rockets, and speed up the R&D of heavy-lift launch vehicles. It will continue to strengthen research into key technologies for reusable space transport systems, and conduct test flights accordingly. In response to the growing need for regular launches, China will develop new rocket engines, combined cycle propulsion, and upper stage technologies to improve its capacity to enter and return from space, and make space entry and exit more efficient.”

And the white paper reminded its readers of something else: “China has always advocated the use of outer space for peaceful purposes, and opposes any attempt to turn outer space into a weapon or battlefield or launch an arms race in outer space. China develops and utilizes space resources in a prudent manner, takes effective measures to protect the space environment, ensures that space remains peaceful and clean, and guarantees that its space activities benefit humanity.”

Remember, China did not launch its first manned mission to outer space until 2003. If plans continue without interruption, the country will complete its permanent space station in less than one year. Trips to the moon and beyond are also planned.

Whenever those moments arrive, Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping and Ye Gangfu will be able to look at each other and smile, knowing they played a critically important role in guaranteeing that millions of Chinese boys and girls can continue dreaming their own dreams about reaching for the stars in the future.

The article reflects the author’s opinions, and not necessarily the views of China Focus. 

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