'Taikonauts' turn Chinese into nation of space junkies

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The Independent Online

Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng blasted off on Wednesday on China's second manned space mission, an effort by the communist government to win respect abroad and support at home.

Space has long been the final frontier, but it has taken the successful launch of China's Shenzhou-6 and the televised images of the two astronauts aboard at work and play to turn the Chinese into a nation of space junkies.

Since China's second manned space mission blasted off from the edge of the Gobi Desert, the nation has been transfixed by the images of the taikonauts, or astronauts, eating with chopsticks in zero gravity, joking around and speaking to their families on earth.

The fervour with which the Chinese have embraced their space programme is reminiscent of America's fascination with their astronauts in the 1960's. Hundreds of millions watched as Shenzhou, which means Divine Vessel, 6 lifted off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the province of Gansu.

The unprecedented access to China's secretive space programme is no accident. Shenzhou-6 has been a welcome opportunity to divert the restive public's attention from corruption scandals and the growing gap between the rich and poor that threatens the stability of the nation.

Television stations showed a beaming President Hu Jintao watching the launch in Beijing with other members of China's Politburo, while premier Wen Jiabao was at the launch centre.

"By piloting the Shenzhou-6, you will again demonstrate to the world that Chinese people have the will, confidence and capacity to continually mount the peaks of science and technology," said Mr Wen to the taikonauts.

China's first manned space mission in October 2003 was accompanied by a media blackout. The fear of an accident ensured the launch wasn't shown live and it was three weeks after his return to earth before Yang Liwei appeared in public.