50-year-old astronaut serves as mentor to next generation

By Global Times-Agencies Source:Global Times Published: 2016/10/21 5:03:40

Jing Haipeng (left) and Chen Dong before the launch  Photo: CFP

Jing Haipeng (left) and Chen Dong before the launch Photo: CFP

"Isn't this cool?" 50-year-old Jing Haipeng asked his fellow astronaut Chen Dong in the cabin of Shenzhou-11 spaceship after it launched successfully from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on October 17.

As the window screens opened, the pair, who were chosen for China's longest manned mission so far, found themselves in space.

"Very cool!" Chen, flying for the first time, answered in awe.

The conversation, captured on video and transmitted back to the Earth, offered a rare look into the daily interaction between the two astronauts in space. The record-breaking mission will last 33 days, during which Shenzhou-11 docks with the Tiangong-2 space laboratory and the two astronauts will complete a series of tasks related to space science.

It's obvious who the leader of the team is - this is already Jing's third space journey. About to celebrate his 50th birthday in space, he is also the oldest astronaut in China to fly a mission.

His partner Chen is 12 years his junior. According to Huang Weifen, deputy research chief of the Astronaut Center of China, pairing a new astronaut with a veteran like Jing will boost the confidence of China's new generation of astronauts and help them develop faster.

"We're a great match - when old and young work together, it makes the mission easier," Jing told China Youth Daily.

Early days

In 1998, after going through a rigorous screening process, 14 candidates were singled out from over 800 pilots from China's air force to become the country's first generation of astronauts. Jing, then 31 years old, was one of them.

Before that, he had already served in China's air force for 13 years. When he was a teenager, he had seen a picture of a pilot and dreamed of becoming one. As a rural boy originally hailing from a village in Yuncheng, Shanxi Province, whose favorite pastime was playing basketball, becoming an astronaut was a wild dream that eventually came true.

With the rise of China's space program in the coming decades, many of the 14 astronauts chosen in 1998 would later become household names, including Yang Liwei, the first person sent into space by the Chinese space program in 2003, piloting the Shenzhou-5.

Jing, however, wasn't chosen for a mission until 2008 when he was selected for the launch of Shenzhou-7, a full 10 years after he joined the astronaut team. Talking about the long wait, Jing said, "I just felt there must be something about myself that needed to be improved." In order to improve, he immersed himself in study materials.

Jing Yanfang, Jing Haipeng's younger sister, said, "My brother is an introverted person, but he has an unbending character and he'll never stop until he fulfills his goal."

Jing's efforts paid off. After completing the Shenzhou-7 mission, he was again chosen for Shenzhou-9 in 2012. Flying again in Shenzhou-11 makes him China's most travelled astronaut. "[After Shenzhou-9,] many people asked me if I would train again for the next mission. I laughed - what else can I do other than training? Preparing for the launch of Shenzhou-11 is my next dream," he told reporters before setting out.

Chasing the dream

Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong in the cabin of Shenzhou-11 Photo: IC

Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong in the cabin of Shenzhou-11 Photo: IC

The success of China's first generation of astronauts encouraged many young pilots to pursue their dreams of space travel. Chen Dong, a fighter pilot hailing from Henan Province, was one of them.

In 2003, Yang Liwei's successful journey into space impressed Chen greatly. Later, he was excited to find out that just like him, Yang used to be a fighter pilot. Chen secretly hoped for another round of astronaut selections.

In 2009, the selection process for China's second generation of astronauts began. Chen successfully made it to the interview phase, and was excited to find that the interviewer was none other than Yang himself. "After an hour-long talk with him, I became more certain than ever that I wanted to become an astronaut," he said.

In 2010, Chen was selected as one of China's second generation of astronauts. For the next six years, Chen cut himself off from the world and devoted himself to training.

For Chen, the most difficult thing was returning to the classroom and learning new theories, including astronomy and space technology. Chen said it was a tough period. "In the beginning, I really had difficulty focusing when I sat in the classroom. In order to not fall asleep, I had to apply ointments to myself and stand at the back of the classroom," Chen said.

But it didn't take long for Chen to get into his stride. "It was inevitable that Chen was chosen for the mission," Huang said, saying that Chen always came first in examinations.

Life of dedication

As members of a highly challenging profession, astronauts have to be committed to career-long training so rigorous that they have to sacrifice many of their freedoms.

According to a report in 2003, Chinese astronauts are surrounded by monitors and accompanied by police guards almost everywhere they go. Even when they return to their hometowns, they are guarded by local plainclothes policemen to ensure their safety.

In the 27 years from when Jing joined the army to 2012, he has only returned to his hometown four times. And Chen, the father of two 5-year-old twin boys, can only return home once a week.

"The honor also goes to our family," Jing said.

Although the two refer to each other using their code numbers when they're on missions - 01 for Jing and 02 for Chen - in their daily lives they prefer to call each other brothers.

The month-long mission will challenge the astronauts' physical and mental health as well as their ability to carry out a variety of tasks. Jing is like a mentor - he often provides timely and useful tips to Chen during training, such as how important it is not to misplace things in a gravity-free environment.

Apart from flying the spacecraft, the pair will also carry out several scientific experiments in space, including one designed by middle school students from Hong Kong. The aim of the experiment is to see if the silk produced in space will be different from that produced on Earth.

For the experiment, Jing and Chen learned how to rear silkworms. "We're not scientists, but we will realize scientists' ideas and goals through our hands," Jing said.

Global Times - Agencies
Newspaper headline: Brothers in space

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