For the first time, two astronauts have worked outside of China’s space station, completing only the second spacewalk in the history of the country’s space program.
Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo began the six-hour and 46-minute extravehicular activity (EVA) on Saturday (July 3) at 8:11 p.m. EDT (0011 GMT or 8:11 a.m. Beijing Time on July 4). Liu was first to exit the space station’s Tianhe (“Harmony of the Heavens”) core module, followed by Tang about three hours later.
Wearing upgraded Chinese Feitian spacesuits, the two Shenzhou 12 crewmates outfitted the space station with tools needed to support future activities.
Liu, initially working alone, attached a foot restraint and platform to the end of the station’s 33-foot-long (10-meter) robotic arm and then mounted the arm himself. Shenzhou 12 commander Nie Haisheng then tested the arm’s controls, moving Liu from inside the Tianhe module.
Tang, tethered to the handrails running along the exterior of the space station, later joined Liu in extending a panoramic camera. They then continued working together to install other EVA equipment with the help of the robotic arm.
“After about 7 hours of exterior activities, the Shenzhou 12 crewmates working closely together successfully completed all the scheduled tasks during the spacewalk,” China’s Manned Space Agency announced at the end of the EVA.
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Liu and Tang completed the spacewalk at 2:57 a.m. EDT (0657 GMT or 2:57 p.m. Beijing time) on Sunday.
A second spacewalk is planned for later in the Shenzhou 12 mission, which launched with Nie, Liu and Tang on June 16 and is scheduled to last three months. In addition to testing procedures, the EVAs are preparing the station to be expanded with the addition of two laboratory modules to be launched in 2022.
China’s first-ever spacewalk was performed by Zhai Zhigang, commander of the Shenzhou 7 mission, in 2008. Liu was part of that mission’s crew as well, and during the 22-minute outing, performed a stand-up EVA, popping his head out of the hatch while wearing a Russian Orlan spacesuit.
The Chinese Feitian (“flying to space”) suits are similar in design to the Orlan, with the portable life support system also serving as a rear-entry hatch into the spacesuit. The Feitian’s helmets are equipped with cameras, broadcasting a first-person view similar to NASA’s extravehicular activity unit (EMU) spacesuit.
When not out on a spacewalk, the Shenzhou 12 crewmates have been configuring and testing the Tianhe core module’s systems, conducting science experiments and participating in video downlinks, including talking live with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
When completed, the T-shaped Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”) space station will be China’s first multi-module space station. In addition to hosting Chinese crews and research, China plans to invite international partners to visit and work aboard the orbiting outpost.
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Robert Pearlman is a journalist and space historian.
His original “Ask An Astronaut” website preceded NASA’s efforts to connect the public with the men and women who have flown in space. Later, as the online program director for the National Space Society, Pearlman led the redesign and expansion of the organization’s online resources and website, including authoring the educational viewer’s guide for Tom Hanks’ award-winning HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon.”
In 1997, Pearlman was recruited by Buzz Aldrin to develop the Apollo astronaut’s first website. And in 1999, Pearlman co-founded the astronaut-endorsed Starport.com, which subsequently was acquired by Space.com. Pearlman was then hired by Space.com to manage the site’s community projects.
Between 1998 and 2003, Pearlman was the on-air, online host for the National Space Day live webcast filmed at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
In 1996, Pearlman was hired by space tourism firm Space Adventures as its first marketing and publicity director.
Today, Pearlman is the editor of collectSPACE.
Pearlman is a contributing writer for Space.com, serves on the leadership board for For All Moonkind, he is a member of the American Astronautical Society’s history committee, and serves as an advisor for The Mars Generation.
He is the co-author of “Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space,” published on Oct. 30, 2018 by Smithsonian Books.
He served as technical consultant on the 2013 movie “Space Warriors” with Mira Sorvino and Danny Glover and the 2018 Damien Chazelle film “First Man” with Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy. He served as historical consultant on the 2019 Todd Douglas Miller documentary “Apollo 11.”
Pearlman has also appeared as a commentator on:
- Strange Inheritance (Fox Business Network)
- American Restoration (History Channel)
- American Pickers (History Channel)
- Mysteries at the Museum (Travel Channel)
- Brad Meltzer’s Lost History (H2)
- Ancient Aliens (History Channel)
- NASA’s Unexplained Files (Science Channel)
Pearlman previously served on the boards of the National Space Society and U.S. Space Walk of Fame Foundation. He is also a former national chair for the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.
In 2001, his work on collectSPACE earned Pearlman the Collector of the Year Award from the Universal Autograph Collectors Club (UACC).
In 2009, Pearlman was inducted into the Space Camp Hall of Fame.