Yang Liwei

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Yang Liwei

Born June 21, 1965 (Suizhong, Liaoning, China)

Chinese astronaut

"To establish myself as a qualified astronaut, I have studied harder than in my college years and have received training much tougher than for a fighter pilot."

On October 15, 2003, Yang Liwei became the first Chinese man to travel in space. His flight on the Shenzhou-5 marked a historic moment: China was now the third nation in the world capable of developing and launching a manned space vehicle. Since 1961, when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (1934–1968; see entry) and American astronaut Alan Shepard (1923–1998; see box in John Glenn [1921–] entry) became the first humans to orbit Earth, the former Soviet Union and the United States had been the dominant forces in space exploration. This is not to say astronauts and cosmonauts from other countries had never traveled into space. France and Germany had operated astronaut programs since the 1970s and had recruited astronauts of many nationalities. The European Space Agency established an astronaut corps in 1998 (see Claudie Haigneré [1957–] entry), providing an even greater global reach. Yet no other nation maintained its own fleet of spacecraft, so space adventurers flew aboard vehicles originating only in the United States and Russia. Yang's achievement, coming forty-two years after those of Gagarin and Shepard, was therefore hailed throughout the world as a step forward in the exploration of space.

Undergoes rigorous training

Yang Liwei (pronounced yahng lee-way) was born on June 21, 1965, in Suizhong, a county in the Liaoning province of northeast China. As a child he dreamed of flying, and at age eighteen he entered a People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force college, where he obtained a bachelor's degree in 1987. After graduation he became a fighter pilot. In 1998, Yang, now a lieutenant colonel, was chosen as one of fourteen (some sources state twelve, others thirteen) astronaut candidates from 1,500 applicants. By this time he had accumulated 1,350 flight-hours as a pilot. He was also married and had an eight-year-old son. Yang's wife, Zhang Yumei, is a teacher who served in China's space program.

As preparation for navigating the Project 921 spacecraft (later called Shenzhou), Yang and the other candidates went to the Astronaut Training Base in Beijing for five years of training. In addition to undergoing rigorous physical exercises, they studied aviation dynamics, air dynamics, geophysics, meteorology, astronomy, space navigation, and the design principles and structure of rockets and spacecraft. They also practiced on spaceflight simulators and learned skills for surviving under extreme conditions in the event that their capsule crashed on Earth or at sea. Reflecting on this experience, Yang later told an interviewer for China Through a Lens that the training was a difficult challenge. "To establish myself as a qualified astronaut," Yang said. "I have studied harder than in my college years and have received training much tougher than for a fighter pilot."

From Rockets to Space

Historians note it is only fitting that China should have a space program, since the first projectile—the rocket—was invented by the ancient Chinese. They fired their rockets by igniting black powder, an explosive mixture similar to gunpowder. Basic rocket technology did not change until the early twentieth century, when Western (non-Asian) scientists perfected the liquid-propellant rocket. This revolutionary technological advance provided the foundation of future space flight. Pioneers in liquid-propellant rocket development and spaceflight theory include Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935), Robert Goddard (1882–1945), Hermann Oberth (1894–1989), and Wernher von Braun (1912–1977) (see entries). In 1955 Chinese engineer Tsien Hsue-Shen (1911–), who had been working on rocket research in the United States, returned to his native country. He brought with him the advanced technology he had helped to develop in America. The following year China started its own rocket and space programs, paving the way for Yang Liwei's flight in 2003.

Flight surrounded in secrecy

The candidates began training on the actual Shenzhou-5 spacecraft in September 2003, at the Jiuquan Launch Center in the Gobi desert in the Gansu Province of northwest China. The following month Yang was chosen as one of three finalists for the position of astronaut on the twenty-one-hour flight aboard Shenzhou-5. The selection was finally narrowed to Yang, but he was not informed until October 14, the evening before liftoff. The morning of October 15 dawned with perfect weather and a clear blue sky. The flight had been made public shortly before the scheduled 9:00 a.m. launch. A few selected Chinese journalists had gathered outside the main building of the launch center when Yang walked to the spacecraft. (The Chinese government continued to surround the details of the mission in secrecy until Yang had landed safely. No foreign journalists were permitted to witness the event.) Waving and smiling to the crowd, he entered the Shenzhou-5 launch capsule at 9:00 a.m. (Beijing time) on the dot. Liftoff also took place on time, and ten minutes after launch the Shenzhou-5 went into orbit. Naval rescue vessels stood by in ports on the Sea of Japan.

The mission plan required Yang to remain in the reentry capsule of the Shenzhou-5 throughout the flight. For this reason he did not enter the orbital module. (The spacecraft consisted of two components, or modules—the reentry capsule, which would take Yang back to Earth, and an orbital module, which would be released into space before returning to Earth.) During the mission he took two three-hour rest periods and had two meals. He maintained communication with ground control via links, including color television, with four tracking ships stationed in the oceans throughout the world. He also spoke with his wife and son by telephone. As reported in China Through a Lens, he told his son, "I caught the sight of our beautiful home [Earth] and recorded all that I've seen there."

When the Shenzhou-5 was in its fourteenth orbit, the reentry capsule separated from the orbital module. The orbital module would stay in space for six months to conduct a reconnaissance (military information) mission. Then the retrorocket (the rocket that fired the reentry capsule on its return trip) was sent back to Earth by a triggering device on a tracking ship in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa. The Shenzhou-5 landed only 4.8 kilometers (less than 60 miles) from its targeted destination in Inner Mongolia. Yang ejected from the capsule and as he floated to the ground with the aid of a parachute, he was sighted by recovery forces before his landing. He had spent twenty-one hours and twenty-three minutes in space.

Becomes national hero

Yang was an instant national hero in China. His achievement was praised worldwide, and congratulations came in from space agencies and astronauts in the United States and

Russia. Among them were Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova (1931–; see entry), the first woman to travel in space, and American astronaut Buzz Aldrin (1930–; see entry), the second person to walk on the Moon. In 2004 the high school in his hometown was renamed the Liwei Senior High School of Suizong County in his honor. That year the government also made an announcement pertaining to an important discovery Yang made during his flight. At that time Chinese elementary-school textbooks contained an essay claiming that a cosmonaut (Russian astronaut) had seen two structures from space—a Dutch sea wall and the Great Wall of China. Yang reported, however, that he could not see the Great Wall of China from space. (The Great Wall is one of the most famous structures in China. Stretching 1,500 miles [2,414 kilometers] across the northern part of the country, it was built as a fortification against invaders in the third century b.c.e.) The government ordered that the essay be removed in 2004.

The Chinese space agency is planning to build space shuttles and a space station and has set a goal to send astronauts to the Moon. (A space shuttle is a craft that transports people and cargo between Earth and space; a space station is a scientific research laboratory that orbits in space.) In 2004 the government also announced that it was recruiting women astronauts, one of whom will be the nation's first woman in space.

For More Information


"China to Correct Great-Wall-in-Space Myth." Associated Press (March 12, 2004).

Lynch, David J. "China's 'Space Hero' Returns to Earth." USA Today (October 16, 2003): A13.

"School Changes Name to Honor China's First Astronaut." Xinhua News Agency (January 10, 2004).

Yardley, Jim. "China in Space: The Return." New York Times (October 16, 2003): p. A10.

Web Sites

"China's Astronaut Returns Safely." CNN.com (October 16, 2003). http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/space/10/15/china.launch/ (accessed June 29, 2004).

"China's First Spaceman Yang Liwei." Translated by Li Xiao. China Through a Lens (October 20, 2003). http://service.china.org.cn/link/wcm/Show_Text?info_id=77494&p_qry=Yang%20and%20Liwei (accessed on June 29, 2004).

"Yang Liwei." Encyclopedia Astronautica.http://www.astronautix.com/astros/yanliwei.htm (accessed on June 29, 2004).

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