Talking to taikonauts: Behind the scenes of the manned space program

Source: Xinhua| 2018-01-29 19:28:29|Editor: ZD
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Wang Yaping (M) (Xinhua file photo)

by H. L. Bentley

BEIJING, Jan. 29 (Xinhua) -- In October 2003, after orbiting the world 14 times and traveling 600,000 kilometers, Yang Liwei landed safely back on Earth and in the history books. Like millions of other people across China, pilot Wang Yaping was mesmerized by what she saw. But to her, those static images represented more than just achievement. She saw an opportunity.

"He was the first male taikonaut. Who would be the first female?"


I met Wang at the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Taikonaut Training Center in the north of Beijing. A sprawling, unassuming, complex with wide roads and squat buildings, it could be mistaken for a business park if not for the uniformed personnel walking between each building.

For the duration of our interview, she sat with her back ramrod straight and her hands neatly folded in her lap, only moving periodically to retrieve her flask of hot water. Not to say she was aloof, but she exhibited a calm, controlled quality. She would tell me later that this was the primary attribute for women in her line of work.

"We control the space craft so we cannot lose consciousness. You have to learn to control your natural reactions," she said.

I met three taikonauts and asked each one the same question: What personal expertise do you have that makes you suitable for the program? All three were surprisingly candid, and modest. Yes, they were qualified but more than anything, they were simply born at the right time.

"I might not be the best, but I was the most suitable at the time. It was a good time on China's journey to prosperity, and the space program was in full swing," Wang said.


China has trained 21 people under its space program since the PLA Taikonaut Corps was established 20 years ago this month. Of them, 11 have been selected for missions. Between them, they have completed six manned spaceflights, over 100 experiments and orbited the Earth a total of 68 days and nights.

Even here, at the training center, I did not have to look far for someone who, like me, has not had the opportunity to look down on our colossal planet. But unlike me, for one man in particular, the dream is within reach.

The most recent of China's space missions was Shenzhou-11 in 2016.

When the crew was safely back on earth, Deng Qingming returned home, and before greeting his wife and daughter he went to the bathroom. As tears streaked his face, he covered the sound of his sobs with running water.

Deng was not on board Shenzhou-11. He is the only active taikonaut from the original group of trainees who has not been to space.

Much has been said about the physical aspects of taikonaut training - centrifuges and hours spent underwater - but what about the mental pressure? How can you stay committed to something for 20 years, despite the likelihood you may never achieve your goal? How do you maintain your physical strength and mental fortitude?

"Perseverance, perseverance, perseverance!" Deng said. "I am 52. But I have belief, and this keeps me going."

In 1962, U.S. astronaut (and later senator) John Glenn, became the first man to orbit the Earth. In 1998, while still senator for Ohio, Glenn returned to space on the Discovery space shuttle at the age of 77. Deng has every reason for his continued optimism. His dream is not over yet.


The second round of recruitment for the space program was in 2009. This time women were allowed to apply. Wang was elated. Her parents, however, did not share her enthusiasm.

"When my parents found out that I wanted to apply for selection, they were firmly opposed to it ... but this was my dream and regardless of their opposition, I went ahead and applied," she said.

The fame and glory of those who actually make the trip into space often dwarfs the sacrifices of those who remain with their feet on the ground. Taikonauts are sons, daughters, wives, husbands, mothers and fathers. Their families too, experience a form of weightlessness as they watch, wait, hope and pray for their loved ones to come home.

Wang eventually won her parents round, or so she thought. There was, however, one thing they held back. Just as the successful voyager into space must never give up hope, those left behind to watch can never give up their fears.

When she returned from her mission, Wang's parents told her: "You were in space for 15 days, but for us, it felt like 15 years."


Zhai Zhigang was China's first, and to date only, taikonaut to walk in space. He is a charming, witty man, comfortable in a way that shows he is used to putting people at ease.

There is, they say, a time and a place for everything. Zhai said he had no time to mess around. Any misstep could have real, potentially fatal consequences.

"Every movement had to be calculated, all I could think of was the task at hand. I didn't have time to think or react."

So, what is it like to look down on Earth?

"When I was doing my spacewalk, above me the earth was 'floating' and turning, below me was the spacecraft. As far as the eye could see was infinite, deep space. If I had to describe it in one word, that word would be 'unsafe,'" Zhai said.

Impressive as China's space program is, it has done little more than catch up with the achievements of Russia and the United States, but all that is soon to change. This year, China plans to become the first country to make a soft landing on the dark side of the moon, a phenomenal feat of technology, perseverance and raw, human courage.

When the Chang'e-4 lunar mission is complete, the next milestone will be to put taikonauts on the moon and bring them safely home again. A generation of Chinese school children will look into the sky at night and, for them, the moon will almost be close enough to touch.

When Wang returned from space she said: "I felt no fear. I just felt an overwhelming sense of achievement. I had fulfilled my dream."

Wang's dream may have come true, but tonight, and every night for many years to come, millions of Chinese are still dreaming.