Space and Science

Inside China’s Space City: Meet the crew of the Shenzhou-10

Cross Platform Link: “Inside Space City,” a world exclusive CNN interview with three of China’s top astronauts, premieres on Friday May 29 at 11:30 pm ET

Story highlights

Nie Haisheng loved the movie "Gravity" starring Sandra Bullock

Wang Yaping is China's second female astronaut and the first born in the 1980s

Zhang Xiaoguang was the crew's "joker"

Beijing CNN  — 

They’re three of China’s best-known astronauts and the crew of the 2013 Shenzhou-10 mission, China’s longest manned spaceflight to date.

CNN sat down with Nie Haisheng, Wang Yaping and Zhang Xiaoguang in the simulation room of China’s “Space City,” and got an exclusive and intimate look at what it takes to be an astronaut in China’s space program.

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Nie Haisheng

Age: 50

Birth Place: Zaoyang, Hubei Province

Nie Haisheng went from tending his father’s buffalo in Hubei to clocking more space hours than any other Chinese astronaut.

Nie Haisheng undergoes an isokinetic muscle test.

Nie is a veteran of the Shenzhou-6 mission and commanded the Shenzhou-10 mission. State media boasted that prior to the Shenzhou-10 mission, he conducted more than 2000 simulations flawlessly.

Recruited to the space program in 1998, Nie could well have been China’s first man in space. He was one of three astronauts tipped for the task, although Yang Liwei would ultimately have that honor.

A former fighter pilot with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), his jet lost an engine in an explosion in 1989, according to state media, forcing him to eject at 1300 feet (400 meters).

A lifelong fan of flying, he named his daughter Tianxiang, which literally means ‘flying in the sky.’ When Nie turned 41 – during his first mission to space – his daughter sang “Happy Birthday” to him from mission control.

He’s also a fan of the Oscar-winning movie “Gravity,” where star Sandra Bullock flies back to earth in a Chinese spacecraft after hers is destroyed.

“We all need to have such a strong state of mind… toward the end of the movie when she came out of the craft at the lake with her hand clutching sand, it just showed the yearning for life,” he said.

READ: Barred from NASA, veteran Chinese astronaut calls for cooperation

Wang Yaping

Age: 35

Birth Place: Yantai, Shandong province

Wang undergoes a cardiovascular endurance test a few weeks before the mission.

Wang Yaping is the undisputed star of the Shenzhou-10 mission, and authorities took the unusual step of announcing her participation some time before the rest of the crew.

As China’s second woman in space, after Liu Yang, the expectations for Wang were extraordinarily high. She says the first moment she looked down on Earth awed her.

“When I looked out of the window for the first time, I realized the true meaning of the power of life… that kind of beauty was just beyond comprehension.”

She says that a manned space program without female astronauts would be incomplete.

“It is like a woman’s role in the family. Women have responsibilities. We also make serious missions more lively and pleasant.”

And female crew members, she thinks, bring a practical benefit.

“We women astronauts weigh less (and) that’s more economical to the mission.”

During the Shenzhou-10 mission, Wang conducted a science lecture to 60 million students throughout China. She demonstrated surface tension of liquids in space, conducted kung fu moves and answered live questions.

A major in the PLA Air Force and a transport plane pilot, Wang was recruited into the second class of aspiring astronauts in 2010.

As the first Chinese astronaut born in the 1980s, state media touted Wang as the voice of younger generation in China.

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Zhang Xiaoguang

Age: 48

Birth Place: Jinzhou, Liaoning province

Zhang Xiaoguang practices entering return capsule on May 31, 2013.

The Shenzhou-10 mission was a long time coming for Zhang Xiaoguang.

Such is the competitiveness of China’s astronaut program, this former fighter squadron commander of the PLA Air Force, who boasts more than a thousand hours of flight time, had to wait for eight astronauts to go into space before he got his chance.

“When I wasn’t selected for a mission, there was nothing I could do about it, so I kept looking forward and working hard, looking for the next opportunity,” he says.

When he was finally chosen after all the hours of training, Zhang said he was overcome by emotion.

“When I learned the news I wasn’t calm, because I had gone through so much and many things that had happened in the past made it impossible for me to remain calm.”

He’s probably best known by the Chinese public as the official cameraman of the Shenzhou-10’s 15-day mission but his crew members call him the joker.

“We were in space and confined to such a small place, we needed a friendly atmosphere even more to make our work and life enjoyable.”

CNN’s Katie Hunt in Hong Kong contributed to this report