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China launches astronauts on spacewalking mission

BEIJING – China carried out a textbook-perfect launch Thursday night with the liftoff of three astronauts into space for the country’s third manned spaceflight and first spacewalk.

Underscoring the political implications of the mission, a beaming President Hu Jintao congratulated the astronauts on live television. He called the voyage “another milestone in the Chinese people’s march towards aerospace science.”

The mission was a sign of China’s growing strategic power and an indication of the importance it gives to space exploration for commercial and military purposes. While NASA officials complain that diminishing budgets threaten U.S. dominance in space, China has joined Europe, India and other nations in announcing ambitious new developments in aerospace.

“After the Olympics, it’s the most exciting thing that enhances our national pride and dignity this year,” said He Haihong, 25, a sales manager at an electronics company who founded a Web site for Chinese aerospace fans. “Not only is the rocket launched but also our hopes for a better life.”

Astronaut Zhai Zhigang is scheduled to attempt the spacewalk over the weekend, according to the state-run New China News Agency and CCTV. The spacewalk is aimed at helping China learn how to dock two orbiters to create an orbiting space station over the next few years.

Hours before the launch, the astronauts – three 42-year-old fighter pilots – sat inside the spacecraft, appearing relaxed as they read from a checklist and waved to a TV camera. At the launching station, rows of ground control staff in brown caps led the countdown while the country’s top leaders watched. There was a burst of flame, then liftoff and applause.

The smooth takeoff allowed the country to focus on something other than the food scandals and economic troubles that have dominated news this month.