On Friday, the People's Republic of China became the third nation in the history of Space to successfully complete a spacewalk, after Russia, the first, and the United States, before returning successfully on Saturday.
A space walk, while it seems like a very routine operation, is far from that, and it represents a huge step forwards for the Chinese as they advance into the Cosmos. Chinese Taikonaut Zhai Zhigang was the first out, where he performed a couple simple experiments, and was joined briefly by taikonaut Liu Boming, who handed off a Chinese flag, while the third member of the crew monitored activity from inside the spacecraft.
On March 18th, 1965, Cosmonaut Alexi Arkhipovich Leonov was launched into space with some minor technical difficulties. Hooked to a seventeen foot tether, he floated free into space from his spacecraft. He noted that the sun was very bright and hot, and was surprised at how flat the earth appeared. When trying to enter the spacecraft, he found that he couldn't fit and had to let some air out, and nearly lost consiousness with the physical excersion that was required to move around in zero gravity.
News of the first space walk was a shock to NASA, prompting them to push forward their own planned space to June 3rd, 1965. A prior mission in May set the groundwork for an EVA, and astronauts Jim McDivitt and Ed White were on their way. Once again, there were some problems, but by their third orbit, Ed White recieved clearance to leave the spacecraft. Using a Handheld Maneuvering Unit (HHMU) to move around, White, and a loose glove, floated free into space. After taking some photographs, and coming across some of the same difficulties as the Soviets, White reentered the spacecraft and returned to earth.
The spacewalks proved that humans could operate effectively in zero gravity and out of a spacecraft, a vital step for any Lunar operations that both nations hoped to achieve before the end of the decade, and showed what problems would need to be overcome, namely the physical effort needed on the part of the astronatuts.
As everybody knows, the Soviets never made it to the moon, but both nations were able to perfect the spacewalk to the point where it seems almost routine for repairs and scientific research. China's bold step into space is a major step for them, as they have planned a space station, and EVA operations will be an essential activity.
In addition to this being a major step into space, the activity has created a national furvor for the Chinese, something very similar to what the US had undergone during the end of the 1960s with the Lunar activities during the space race. The EVA was broadcast live for the nation, with millions watching.
It's a shame that the US hasn't experienced this in a very long time. We no longer have the same enthusiasm and energy for space. Shuttle launches no longer recieve the same attention that the Gemini and Apollo missions did during their time. To some extent, I hope that competition with China will be a push for the United States to reenter space with renewed energy. I feel bad when I don't realize when a space shuttle is in orbit, or when something like that is going on in orbit. While listening to the radio, I could hear the enthusiasm from students who watched the event.
Watch video of the event:
Wired Magazine has a good article here about some of the more memorable spacewalks.