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Why China decided to give 49-year-old astronaut record third mission

By the time you’re 50, Confucius said, you should know the will of heaven.

That’s a saying that would surely resonate with China’s oldest astronaut, Major General Jing Haipeng, who will celebrate his 50th birthday next Monday on the orbiting Tiangong-2 space laboratory, during his third mission into space.

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Jing is a long way from being the oldest person to venture into space. That honour belongs to American John Glenn, who boarded a space shuttle at the age of 77 in 1998 – 36 years after becoming the first American to orbit the earth – to test the effect of space flight on the elderly.

But Jing has set a record in China’s relatively young manned space programme. He’s also a dozen years older than Colonel Chen Dong, the other astronaut aboard the Shenzhou XI spacecraft when it blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in Inner Mongolia on Monday morning at the start of its 33-day mission.

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Only a true solider could withstand nearly two decades of intensive training and maintain peak performance in competition against younger colleagues, researchers from the Beijing-based Astronaut Research and Training Centre of China said.

Jing was a basketball enthusiast who was physically strong and had fast reflexes, a medical researcher involved in the stringent selection process said. But, most important of all, he remained calm under pressure, which mattered more than knowledge and skills for an astronaut undertaking a space mission.

It was such calmness under pressure that led to Yang Liwei’s selection as China’s first man in space in 2003, the researcher said, adding that Yang was the only man who could sleep before the flight.

“Yang not just slept but slept astonishingly well, even better than on normal days, so doctors unanimously agreed, hours before the launch, that he should be the one to go,” the researcher said.

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Jing, only a year younger than Yang, sat on the substitutes bench for five years before his first space flight, in 2008, when he assisted two other astronauts on Shenzhou VII who were selected to perform China’s first spacewalk.

On that mission he demonstrated exceptional calmness. When his crew mates opened the airlock, a fire alarm sounded in cabin. Jing quickly carried out a series of emergency procedures and decided it was just a false alarm. If not for his prompt and decisive action, the spacewalk would have been cancelled, disappointing millions of people who had tuned into the live television broadcast of the historic event.

Jing’s performance on that mission won him the post of crew commander for China’s next manned space mission, Shenzhou IX, in 2013, making him the first Chinese astronaut to go into space more than once.

“I have gone through five selections, including one failure and one as backup,” Jing told the Xinhua news agency before the Shenzhou XI mission. “The competition exists, [but] a team can only compete [among themselves] to develop combat capabilities.”

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Jing, who was born into a farmer’s family in Yuncheng, Shanxi, was knocked back when he first applied to become a military pilot in 1984, when he was 18 years old.

After working too hard to prepare for the test, his bloodshot eyes failed to impress at a physical examination, according to mainland media reports.

He retook the test a year later, against his family’s wishes, and was enlisted into the People’s Liberation Army Air Force in Wuxi, Jiangsu province.

His family was so poor that they could only afford a watermelon to celebrate his departure.

Jing’s mother often cried after he became a pilot and he rarely returned home due to his training, which became more intensive after he entered the PLA’s astronaut programme in 1998.

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Jing told Xinhua that he had many things to learn from foreign astronauts, some of whom had spent more than 400 days on the International Space Station.

“I am still a rookie, [but] I look forward to making a contribution to the construction of the [Chinese] space station,” he said. “Whenever the motherland requires, I will resolutely obey the call.”