Beijing, we have lift-off

After the Olympics, China's first space walk marks another milestone in the rise of a new superpower

Securely attached to his capsule high above the world, mission commander Zhai Zhigang waved the red flag yesterday to mark China's first space walk and celebrate the latest milestone in his nation's astonishing rise.

"I'm feeling quite well. I greet the Chinese people and the people of the world," said the 41-year-old taikonaut as he floated out of Shenzhou VII's orbital module and began his 13-minute manoeuvre in space. Just like the Olympics in August, the space walk is a powerful symbol of how China has emerged as an Asian superpower, and underlines its technological ambitions.

Colonel Zhai's feat was watched by hundreds of millions of Chinese live on the state broadcaster CCTV. For the country's Communist rulers, the mission has provided a welcome distraction from the tainted-milk scandal at home, which has killed four infants and made tens of thousands ill.

Colonel Zhai spent the day before the space walk assembling and putting on his space suit, which has 10 layers and takes up to 15 hours to prepare. His colleague, Liu Boming, popped his hugely helmeted head out to hand him a Chinese flag to wave for the camera filming the event. The third crewman, Jing Haipeng, monitored the ship from inside the re-entry module. Colonel Zhai retrieved a sample of solid lubricant attached to the outside of the space vehicle before climbing slowly back into the capsule.

China's first manned spaceflight was in 2003, with a second, two-man flight in 2005. The next target is to build a space station, and there are plans to land a man on the moon in the next decade. The only other countries that have sent people into space are Russia and the US – a token of China's rapid progress is that the Shenzhou VII mission comes just three days before the 50th anniversary of the US space agency, Nasa.

"On this flight, Chinese people's footprints will be left in space for the first time. This will give the world yet something else to marvel about China in this extraordinary year of 2008," ran a commentary by the official Xinhua news agency.

However, the Chinese tendency to stage-manage the finest details of an event led to embarrassment ahead of Thursday's launch. Xinhua posted a story hours before Shenzhou VII lifted off, saying the capsule was being successfully tracked over the Pacific Ocean. The story, ostensibly filed from one of the ships tracking the spacecraft, had a 27 September dateline and even quoted the crew of the spacecraft saying cabin and oxygen pressure were normal.

The taikonauts, who will spend a total of 68 hours in orbit, are scheduled to land on the Inner Mongolian steppe today, Xinhua said. In orbit, they have been able to choose from some 80 different dishes, including spicy kung pao chicken, which seems to be a favourite with Chinese space travellers. To no one's surprise, there was no milk on the menu.