For the past six ignition countdowns of the Shenzhou missions, people are acquainted with the voice of Guo Baoxin, the first Commander Zero of China's manned space missions.
Guo Baoxin, the first Commander Zero of China's manned space mission, works during the launch of the Shenzhou VI spacecraft. [file photo]
But tonight, a new voice will be heard around the country on TV and radio as Shenzhou VII will blast off into space from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China's northwestern Gansu province.
It will be much more than a rookie's experience for Guo Zhonglai, Commander Zero of the mission that will include China's first spacewalk.
"What people see through the media are the few seconds of my job," said the man with a low, resonant voice. "It really all starts at 48 hours 40 minutes before launch. I ought to be at the dispatch center at any given time from this point on.
"Commander Zero starts work at minus 10 hours. I am responsible for orders to all units involved between then and T+583 seconds, when Shenzhou VII enters the initial orbit," he continued.
"Basically, that means no meals and no bathroom time for me in half a day."
Guo Zhonglai, Commander Zero of the Shenzhou VII space mission, which will include China's first space walk. [file photo]
Zero is the smallest number in a countdown. The commander-in-chief of Chinese space missions on launch day has been referred to as Commander Zero since Dongfanghong I, the country's first satellite lifted off from here in 1970. Other lower posts are sequentially named Commander One, Commander Two and onwards.
Commander Zero has to be highly familiar with the nature and length of every pre-launch procedure involved in all systems across the country, from the people carrying out key procedures, to what to do in case of emergency.
The 42-year-old is no stranger to the task. Now in his 17th year at the center, Guo has been Commander Zero of several satellite missions. But none of them were televised like tonight's broadcast. It makes no difference whether or not his voice would be heard on TV, he says – "it's about getting the job done".
Guo, who worked on the outskirts of China's second largest desert, where no civilian town is within a 200 sq km radius, has had few regrets since he was assigned here after graduating from the National University of Defense Technology.
"I did have second thoughts when I first came," he admits. "The environment here is harsh and dry, and management is extremely strict. Being in other fields of work and living elsewhere might have been better for me," acknowledged the Inner Mongolia native.
But his major in liquid engineering is hardly suited for any civilian work. Realizing that a work transfer would be a waste of both his talent and interest in space projects, Guo settled down and got married in 1993.
That didn't mean he would be a next-door family man, though. Guo's daughter was born three years later. But even now, she hardly knows him since he always spends most of his time with rockets and satellites.
"There ought to be sacrifices," he said. "We're a high-risk industry. Hardcore precision is a must for every tiny operation involved, as one single error could cause the failure of the whole mission."
Guo says he tends to forget about domestic life when a rocket is launched or when a spaceship is successfully recovered. "It's like I myself am flying in the sky - a feeling beyond words," he exclaimed.
Such devotion has kept him here. Guo had a chance to leave in 1999 and replicate the economic success of his schoolmates. But for him, the big shots "have made no contribution to our country and nation, and have not realized the true meaning of life".
So Guo stayed put, quietly serving on different posts in four Shenzhou missions. In 2006 he found another reason to stay: China's growing power in space technology. While studying at the International Space University in France, Guo found that every time he spoke in class, all foreigners would listen very carefully. Many even took notes.
"The reason people listened to me and believed me was our country's might in the global space community," he said. "That had me assured I'm right where I'm supposed to be."
It takes the simplest but also hardest things to be the second Commander Zero of China's manned space missions, according to Guo: a technically-matured mind, a strong body and a big, big heart.
(China Daily September 25, 2008)