At the Beijing olympics, China proved it was best in the world at coming in first by dominating the gold-medal count. On Sept. 27 the country showed it can also be very happy with bronze. Forty-three years after cosmonaut Alexei Leonov spent 12 minutes outside an orbiting spacecraft, China became the third nation after the former Soviet Union and the U.S. to conduct a spacewalk.
In technological accomplishment, the three-man mission had a 1960s twang. During his 13-minute sortie outside the Shenzhou VII capsule, Zhai Zhigang demonstrated the effectiveness of a Chinese spacesuit, retrieved a rack attached to the outside of the capsule that was part of a lubricants test, had a "Greetings, earthlings" cameo (Zhai's actual words: "Greetings to all the people of the nation and all the people of the world") and brandished a Chinese flag.
The act of flag-waving by the 42-year-old fighter pilot may have carried the most freight. China's government in recent weeks has lost some of its Olympics afterglow to another product-quality scandal: four Chinese infants died and tens of thousands became ill after drinking milk products laced with an industrial chemical. The spacewalk part of an ambitious manned space program that includes construction of a space lab and will likely feature a lunar landing was a reminder of the country's growing national might. "There are problems, yes, but the message of this is that the [Communist] Party has the right control policy because of all it has done," says Dean Cheng, China analyst with the CNA Corp., a U.S.-based think tank. Says Joan Johnson-Freese, a space expert at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.: "The Chinese have read the Apollo playbook. They understand everything the U.S. got from its lunar program."
There's no question that the public was paying attention. In central Beijing, throngs of onlookers blocked traffic as they gathered to watch the spacewalk on giant outdoor TV screens. Decades from now, a generation of Chinese probably will not remember how many gold medals their country won. They may well recall when Zhai floated 213 miles above Earth.