China details plans for historic flight
Published: Friday, January 3, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 2, 2003 at 9:36 p.m.
BEIJING - First came the Soviet cosmonaut. Then the American astronaut made it to outer space. Now, says China, it's time for a new pioneer to make history far above the Earth - the taikonaut.
After a decade of secretive preparation, China disclosed plans Thursday to launch a manned spacecraft this year, an achievement the communist government hopes will win it public support at home and respect abroad.
A successful launch would stand as a trophy to China's progress after two decades of economic reform. It would make this only the third nation - after Russia and the United States - capable of sending a human into space on its own.
The Shenzhou V capsule carrying at least one of the country's astronauts - dubbed taikonauts after the Chinese word for space - is to be launched in the second half of 2003, according to the official China News Service.
The office of Yuan Jie, director of the Shanghai Aerospace Bureau, confirmed the report.
"Shenzhou V will be manned," said an official there who wouldn't give his name. He quoted Yuan as saying it would be a "breakthrough in China's manned aerospace history."
The announcement came as the unmanned Shenzhou IV, launched this week, circled the Earth on a test flight that the government says is testing life-support equipment. Media reports have described the Shenzhou IV as a test flight, suggesting the manned mission also would involve orbiting.
Taikonauts are drawn from the ranks of Chinese fighter pilots and have trained for years to fly on the Shenzhou. The state press says the first corps numbers about a dozen. But so far, the military-linked space program has withheld their identities and released few details of their training.
China has had a rocketry program since the 1950s, and missiles are regarded as one of its strongest military technologies. The space program's commercial arm boosts satellites into orbit aboard giant Long March rockets for European and U.S. clients.
Beijing has nurtured the dream of manned space flight since at least the early 1970s, when the beginnings of a program were scrapped amid the upheaval of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
The current effort, begun in 1992 and code-named Project 921, is based on Russian technology with extensive modifications. Chinese officials stress that everything sent into orbit will be designed and manufactured in China.
At least two taikonauts have been sent to Russia's cosmonaut school for training. Others are now believed to be training.
The Shenzhou, or "Sacred Vessel," is modeled on Russia's Soyuz capsule, which can carry three people. Foreign experts say the first Chinese flight probably will carry at least two astronauts, letting Beijing claim a record of a kind - the first debut flight by a spacefaring nation with more than one person aboard.
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