This year marks the 20th anniversary of China’s manned space program, which just five years after its birth sent its first spaceman, aka taikonaut, Yang Liwei, aloft in 2003.
So, what does it take to become a taikonaut?
The first step is of course a panoply of physical and psychological training, but it also means 12 months of intense studying of no fewer than eight subjects, ranging from English and psychology to advanced mathematics and aerodynamics and astronomy, cramming the equivalent of a four-year postgraduate curriculum into a 12-month crash course, according to Xinhua.
But for taikonaut Zhang Xiaoguang, his trek to space started 15 years ago.
Zhang, one of the 14 People’s Liberation Army pilots recruited for China’s then-fledging space program, was 32 when he joined the taikonaut corps at its founding in 1998.
Nonetheless he was left out of the highly competitive selections for the Shenzhou 5, Shenzhou 6, Shenzhou 7 and Shenzhou 9 missions over the decades. But that didn’t dampen his ardor, and after showing exceptional tenacity, he was eventually shortlisted for the 10th manned launch in June 2013.
Apart from acing exams, Zhang’s challenge during adaptive training was hypoxia.
In a pressure chamber, taikonauts go through a simulated ascent from ground level to an altitude of 5,000 meters in five minutes, with all the dizziness, nausea and even shock that oxygen deprivation brings.
The aerotrim, or spinning chair, is designed to strengthen balance and spatial orientation. Lasting 10 minutes is considered “excellent,” but Zhang always pushed himself on to 15 minutes.
As for training for spacewalks in a weightless environment, Zhang wore a suit weighing more than 160 kilograms and stayed underwater for four hours at a time, losing 2kg or more in each session.
Enduring high-G training in a centrifuge is another scourge, as a taikonaut has to withstand pressure equaling eight times his weight, when muscles on the face become distorted, breathing get difficult and the forehead bulges.
There is a red stop button inside the centrifuge, but Zhang never pressed it, a PLA general overseeing the space program told China Central Television.
In 2013, to an audience of hundreds of rapt schoolchildren and space aficionados in a packed auditorium back on Earth in Beijing, Zhang and fellow taikonauts Nie Haisheng and Wang Yaping delivered China’s first lecture on board the Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) space lab more then 210 kilometers up. It was the height of Zhang’s career, one week after the trio docked the Shenzhou 10 space shuttle with the lab. The lecture was broadcast live nationwide.
Since 2003, 11 Chinese taikonauts have accomplished six manned spaceflights, orbiting the Earth for a total of 68 days.
In the most recent mission, Shenzhou 11 in 2016, Zhang’s colleagues Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong stayed in the Tiangong-2 space lab for a month. The space labs are prototypes and test beds for China’s program to launch a full space station.
“When China’s space station is in orbit, manned space missions will be a regular occurrence,” said an editorial that appeared in Tuesday’s People’s Daily.
Selections for new missions are already under way, and other than PLA pilots, scientists and engineers will be eligible to apply, as long as they can make it to the final vetting by the panelists, who will include Yang, Zhang and other spacemen, China Daily reports.
“We plan to select suitable candidates with master’s and doctorate degrees from space-industry contractors, research entities and universities and train them into engineers and payload specialists to work on the space station,” Yang said during an open day at Beijing’s Astronaut Center of China.
China’s development and assembly of its indigenous space station is on a fast track, and it is scheduled to be up and running around 2022 and remain in orbit as a Chinese territory in space for no less than a decade.