JIAYUGUAN, China – Two years after China became only the third nation to launch a human into orbit, a pair of astronauts blasted off today on a longer, riskier mission after receiving a farewell visit from Premier Wen Jiabao.
Wen said the “glorious and sacred mission” would demonstrate China’s national confidence and ability.
A rocket carrying the Shenzhou 6 capsule and the astronauts blasted off from the remote base in China’s northwest. In a break with the space agency’s typical secrecy, the launch was shown live on Chinese state television.
The mission, reportedly due to last up to five days, is a key prestige project for China’s communist leaders, who have justified the expense of a manned space program by saying that it will drive economic development. It will be more complicated than the first flight in 2003, which carried one astronaut and lasted just 21 1/2 hours.
Minutes after liftoff, mission control announced that the first stage booster had successfully separated from the rocket and that the flight had entered its preset orbit.
The official Xinhua News Agency said the two astronauts, or “taikonauts,” will take off their 22-pound spacesuits to travel back and forth between the two halves of their vessel – a re-entry capsule and an orbiter that will stay aloft after they land.
Earlier in the day, Xinhua announced the identities of the two taikonauts – Fei Junlong, 40, and Nie Haishen, 41. Previous reports said 14 former fighter pilots were training for the mission.