Yang Liwei was China's first citizen in space. His launch into orbit aboard Shenzhou-5 on 15 October 2003 marked the entry of China into an elite group, consisting only of Russia and the United States, who had the capability to launch human beings off the planet. Yang's name therefore was placed in history next to those of Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard.
Yang was born in June 1965 in Suizhong County of northeast China's Liaoning Province. Friends in his hometown recalled that Yang had dreamed of flying when still a child. He joined the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) in September 1983 and entered the No. 8 Aviation College of the PLA Air Force. Yang graduated in 1987 with the equivalent of a bachelor's degree. He became a fighter pilot, accumulating 1,350 flight-hours by the time of his first spaceflight in 2003.
In January 1998, Yang was selected as a member of the group of Chinese astronauts set to train to fly the Project 921 (later Shenzhou) spacecraft. He was one of 14 chosen from among 1,500 pilot candidates. The team underwent five years of rigid physical, psychological and technical training at the Astronaut Training Base in Beijing. The astronauts received lessons in aviation dynamics, air dynamics, geophysics, meteorology, astronomy, space navigation, and the design principles and structure of rockets and spacecraft. They also received systematic training in space flight simulators.
Yang noted the study was much more difficult than that in college. The astronauts also had to learn survival skills under extreme conditions in case their capsule landed anywhere on the earth, on land or sea.
On September 20, 2003 the 14 astronauts started exercising in the real Shenzhou-5 spacecraft at the Jiuquan Launch Centre. Yang was finally selected in October as one of three finalists to be the country's first astronaut.
Yang, 168 cm tall and weighing 65 kg, was a lieutenant colonel at the time of his first spaceflight. He had an eight-year-old son. His wife, Zhang Yumei, also served in China's space program.
Yang was first identified as an astronaut in the May 2003 issue of Fliegerrevue. His was one of 12 new names listed as those of Chinese astronauts in training. The day before the scheduled launch of Shenzhou-5, China's first manned flight, he was named in the Hong Kong press as the prime crew member for the flight.
Although the first Chinese citizen launched aboard a Chinese spacecraft, Yang was preceded into space by the following astronauts either born in China or with Chinese heritage:
Birth Place: Suizhong, Liaoning.
Spaceflights: 1 .
Total time in space: 0.89 days.
The highly conservative mission plan was for Yang to remain in the Shenzhou re-entry capsule for the entire 21-hour mission, and not to enter the orbital module. He had two rest periods of three hours each, and was scheduled to eat once or twice meals of what was said to be a superior form of Chinese space food. Frequent communications sessions, including colour television links to the spacecraft, were made possible by China's four tracking ships deployed in the oceans of the world.
As the spacecraft was in its 21st orbit, the orbital module separated. It would stay in the 343 km orbit for a planned six-month military imaging reconnaissance mission. Retrofire was commanded via a tracking ship in the Atlantic off the coast of Africa. Shenzhou-5 landed only 4.8 km from the aim-point in Inner Mongolia with the parachute being sighted by the ground recovery forces prior to landing. Yang landed after 21 hours 23 minutes aloft.