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One Giant Leap

2021-11-17
Wang Yaping becomes China’s first female astronaut to participate in a spacewalk during the Shenzhou-13 mission. [Photo credits: NPR]
Wang Yaping becomes China’s first female astronaut to participate in a spacewalk during the Shenzhou-13 mission. [Photo credits: NPR]
Wang Yaping becomes China’s first female astronaut to participate in a spacewalk during the Shenzhou-13 mission. [Photo credits: CNN]

One small step for a woman, one giant leap for womankind! In the early hours on Monday, November 8, Senior Colonel Wang Yaping, 41, made history by becoming the first Chinese female astronaut to conduct an extravehicular activity (EVA), commonly known as a ‘spacewalk’. She is only the second female Chinese astronaut to travel to space. The first was Major Liu Yang, who flew to space aboard the Shenzhou-9 back in 2012. Liu, who was only 33 years old at the time, set a new precedent in Chinese culture and became an inspiration for many young women. Wang boarded the Shenzhou-10 the following year.

As one of three astronauts on the Shenzhou-13 mission, Wang conducted the spacewalk with Commander Zhai Zhigang, 51, who became China’s first astronaut to perform an EVA during Shenzhou-7. Ye Guangfu, 41, a novice to space, remained on the platform to monitor the activity. The two spacewalkers spent a total of 6.5 hours installing equipment to Tianhe’s Tiangong, the core module of China’s first-ever space station. Tiangong also means heavenly place in Chinese.

The Shenzhou-13 spacecraft launched on Saturday, October 16, 2021 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. [Photo credit: SCMP]

The Shenzhou-13 spacecraft launched on October 15 and is expected to spend six months at Tiangong. If successful, this mission will be China’s longest space operation to date. Over the next few months, the crew will transfer equipment to expand the space station. Additionally, they plan to perform two more EVAs to test out China’s newly-developed space gear and technology, including new-generation Feitian spacesuits. They will also conduct several experiments to further space medicine and test the microbial content of Tianhe’s water.

Many of us dream of going to space, but few actually make it happen. As of today, fewer than 600 people have flown to space, and only 65 of them were women. Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to fly to space in 1963. Another Roscosmos astronaut, Svetlana Savitskaya, was the first to perform a spacewalk on July 25, 1984. Up until Wang, only 15 women total have conducted spacewalks.

Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to fly to space in 1963. [Photo credit: Space.com]

Wang carried through with her space dream, because she believed it was possible. “Dreams are like stars in the universe. They look far and unreachable, but as long as we try, we are destined to reach them,” said Wang during an interview with China Central Television. Just like her predecessor Liu, Wang has served as a role model for many young girls. During her first mission, she gave a televised science lecture in space while aboard the Tiangong-1 space lab module. The video garnered more than 60 million views. Wang plans to give another space lecture before the end of the Shenzhou-13 mission.

Despite being a dreamscape for individuals, outer space has turned into a competitive geopolitical arena for global superpowers. The United States, Russia, and China are the countries with the largest space programs. Following the successful moon landing of Apollo-11 which was considered a U.S. victory in the space race against the USSR, the American space program became unmatched. Since the recent onset of China’s fast-growing space program and explorations, however, many U.S. experts have expressed concern that China might overtake U.S. leadership in space.

Their worries intensified following several notable Chinese space achievements, including the following: in 2019, China became the first nation to land on the far side of the moon; in 2020, the country successfully placed its Beidou satellite into orbit, threatening the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS); and most recently, China became the second country after the U.S. to land a rover on Mars.

The Tiangong Space Station is China’s first-ever space station, located in low Earth orbit. [Photo credit: Space.com]

Despite growing concerns about a China-U.S. space race, several experts, including Washington’s top advisers, have urged the U.S. administration to cooperate with China. As modeled by the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission, joint cooperation between two rival superpowers is indeed possible.

During an interview, Major Liu talked about the importance of international space cooperation: “International cooperation can help us to join our efforts together to have a better exploration of the universe and accelerate our exploration steps.” She reinforced her idea by recalling the famous Chinese proverb that says: “Only when all contribute their firewood can they build up a strong fire.” Whether it concerns earth or space, global wellbeing can only be achieved once great powers like the U.S. and China join hands to collaborate on these fronts. Because, one small step for nations is one giant leap for humankind.

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