Manned space flight next for China


Published: Monday, January 6, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 11:18 p.m.
BEIJING - An unmanned Chinese space capsule returned safely to Earth on Sunday, state media said, laying the groundwork for China to attempt later this year to send an astronaut into space.
A successful manned flight would make China only the third country, after Russia and the United States, able to send its own astronauts into space.
The Shenzhou IV capsule landed as planned just after 7:00 p.m. on China's northern grasslands in the Inner Mongolia region, the official Xinhua News Agency and state television said.
"Experts in charge of China's manned space program said the return of the spaceship represents a complete success of the fourth test flight of the program," Xinhua said. It said the flight "lays a solid foundation" for eventual manned missions.
Chinese officials said this week that barring problems with Shenzhou IV, the next launch would be manned - a possibility that appeared to grow with the reported smooth conclusion of the flight Sunday.
Communist leaders hope manned space flight will be evidence of China's progress and technical prowess, winning them support at home and respect abroad. However, some ordinary Chinese criticize the program as a waste of money for a poor country where the average income is about $700 a year.
Shenzhou IV blasted into space Dec. 30 from a base in the Gobi desert. Xinhua said it orbited the earth 108 times and performed hundreds of maneuvers, including unfolding its solar panels.
Instruments functioned normally and collected a large amount of test data, Xinhua said.
It said the re-entry vehicle and its contents will be sent to Beijing for analysis.
The flight was the second in less than 10 months for a Chinese space capsule - the shortest period to date between launches and a possible sign of growing official confidence in the program.
Communist Party and military leaders observed the spacecraft's return from the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center, Chinese Central Television reported.
Television pictures showed officials and technicians, many wearing military tunics under their white lab coats, sitting at control panels before a large television screen showing what appeared to be the capsule lying on its side in the dark.
A corps of about a dozen astronauts picked from among fighter pilots in China's air force have been training for years to take the first trip into space. At least two were sent to Russia's cosmonaut school.
Called "taikonauts" after the Chinese word for space, they used the Shenzhou IV capsule for training, and lived inside it for a week last April, according to newspapers.
The Shenzhou IV, whose name means "Sacred Vessel," carried the necessary equipment for a manned flight, and the mission tested life-support and other systems, scientists said. Xinhua said the capsule was "identical to manned spaceships except there were no men aboard."
Foreign experts note that Shenzhou, which is based on Russia's Soyuz capsule, can carry up to three astronauts, and they say China might be planning to send more than one person on the first flight.
However, reports by Hong Kong and Taiwan news media said this week only one astronaut will make the first flight.
The newspapers Sing Tao of Hong Kong, China Times of Taiwan and the Chinese news Web site Muzi.com identified the pilot picked to make the first flight as Chen Long. The reports cited anonymous Chinese sources.
They said Chen had been chosen from 14 trainee astronauts and described him and an unidentified backup pilot as about 30 years old and of medium height and build. They said each has flown more than 1,000 hours in fighter jets.
Last week, President Jiang Zemin said the latest launch was a "great victory."

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