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Courage, dedication decipher Chinese astronauts' space dream
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Less than a day before the launch of the Shenzhou-7 spaceship, 42-year-old astronaut Liu Boming said he couldn't wait to find out what a "real" loss of gravity is like.

"I will share with you when I come back," he said, brimming with a smile.

Liu and partner Zhai Zhigang and Jing Haipeng, all at the same age, met the press at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Gansu Province on Wednesday.

Wearing blue uniforms and taking turns to answer questions behind a window pane, the trio exuded confidence and poise at a challenging but historic mission ahead. The Shenzhou-7 spacecraft is scheduled for a liftoff between 9:07 p.m. and 10: 27 p.m. Thursday, and its catchphrase is a spacewalk.

Exactly 10 years ago, the three were among a 14-member team selected for the country's manned space program. If a decade is enough to achieve something, China certainly did, and it was accomplished with an unfailing spirit of dedication of the thousands who worked for the program.

In October, 2003, China became the third country to send a man in space, after the former Soviet Union and the United States. Yang Liwei was the first-ever Chinese home-grown astronaut to greet the nation from outer space. In 2005, the country sent two more astronauts, Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng, on a five-day journey on the Shenzhou-6 spacecraft.

The three astronauts for the Shenzhou-7 are about to join the elite ranks of space and national heroes. At the threshold of another space spectacle, the stories of the spacemen came to public light.

A decade of rigorous training

One of the most published story lines about Yang Liwei was tha the arrived three days ahead of schedule for a medical checkup required in the astronaut selection process. The nurse said jokingly, "you just can't wait to be shot up into space, can you?"

That was the summer of 1996, when China began picking taikonauts from its fighter pilots. Thousands applied, and evaluations were based upon stringent qualification criteria like flight hours, academic degrees and physical conditions. Hundreds were selected for interviews. By the end of 1997, only 14 survived the extensive tests and stayed.

On January 5, 1998, the 14 men replaced their fighter pilot armband with a golden space flight armband. The moment of assembly was still remembered as one of excitement, fearlessness and strong anticipations for the future.

From that on, they embarked on a life of abstinence to prepare them for the rigors of space flight. "They are a group of people isolated from the society and focused on their own missions," said Shen Xingyun, a brigadier of the astronauts squad.

For the group of 30-year-olds, being an astronaut was about adventure and glamour, but the process of becoming one was never easy.

According to a rule book, they are not allowed to dine outside their training centers or disclose their identities, and can only go home on weekends. Before the launch of the spaceship, they stayed in a heavily-guarded quarantine facility to keep them from contagion.

They had to learn 58 disciplines ranging from English, astronomy and physics, which they compared to 58 "ladders" to the space. Besides academics, training programs like the human centrifuges and underwater training were also demanding.

When the centrifuge is in motion, an astronaut trains himself to read signals and answer questions when the body is spinning, head dizzy, face muscles contorting, and tears spurting out. "The machine has a red button at our fingertips in case we couldn't hold it any longer, but as far as I remember, no one has ever pushed the button," said Yang Liwei.

The underwater training also took so much out of their bodies that they couldn't hold a pair of chopsticks after emerging from the water.

"They are the most diligent and most smart trainees I ever had," said Hu Yinyan, a trainer in spaceship maneuvering.

"It requires years of relentless training and a deep commitment to your career to succeed, and I think they all have these qualities," she said.

Brotherhood and sacrifice

The first generation of Chinese astronauts has been honored as a group who realized the world's most populous nation's space dreams, but not all of them indeed gets to fly. Taking the Shenzhou-7 trio into account, a total of six have chances to fly, and the rest will retire or transfer to other jobs due to age limit.

"Everyone wants to fly, but only a smattering few gets picked. Sometimes the wish has to give way to the fact and the next thing you do is to work harder," Shenzhou-7 astronaut Zhai Zhigang told Xinhua in an interview this week.

Zhai made the final lists of astronauts for the two previous missions, but didn't get to fly. He has found ways to cope with his down period.

"I have had the highest of the highs and lowest of the lows, but being an astronauts doesn't allow much emotional ups and downs, because it's such a taxing job both psychologically and physically. I have to recover quickly," he said.

Huang Weifen, deputy chief designer of the astronaut system, said "those who don't get picked don't write loss on their face, but you feel that in the training, they were harder on themselves."

"An important thing is the members help each other because years of studying, training and staying together has forged a solid friendship among them," she said.

"We were so familiar with one another that if one moves a finger, I know whether he wants water or wants to say something," said Yang Liwei.

When Yang returned to earth from his mission, back-up candidates Zhai Zhigang and Nie Haisheng were the first to hug and congratulate him.

"We will support and cooperate with each other during the mission to make sure it ends with a success," said Liu Boming when meeting the press Wednesday.

"As astronauts, our value lies in that we explore the space on behalf of the mankind, and it's something we have to do as a team," he said.

(Xinhua News Agency September 25, 2008)

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