China boldly goes for manned space mission

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The Independent Online

China announced yesterday that it plans to launch its first manned space flight as early as next week, in a mission that will break over 40 years of galactic domination by the US and Russia.

China announced yesterday that it plans to launch its first manned space flight as early as next week, in a mission that will break over 40 years of galactic domination by the US and Russia.

Although the launch date has not been confirmed, the mission, which will be shown on live television, is believed to be planned for 15 October.

It is expected that one Chinese astronaut, known as a "taikonaut" after the Chinese word for space, will blast off from the Jiuquan space centre on the edge of the Gobi desert. He or she will fly aboard a spacecraft that will orbit the Earth once in the 90-minute flight, before landing in China's inner mongolia region. The mission will be controlled from the central space centre in Beijing. About 14 would-be astronauts have already arrived in Jiuquan and are training inside the spacecraft.

The launch will come a day after the end of the Chinese Communist Party's annual meeting and a fortnight after a rare national holiday last week, capitalising on patriotic fervour and pride in the ruling Communist party.

Peter Bond, space science advisor to the Royal Astronomical Society in London said: "The launch is extremely important for China and will propel them to the forefront of scientific and technological advances. China has ambitions to join the big league of superpowers and this is one way for the government to show progress in that direction. I think they want to show that they can compete with Europe, Japan and America."

The former director of the China Rocket Design Department, Xie Guangxuan, was quoted as saying that the Shenzhou ("Heavenly Vessel") space module would carry one kilogram of seeds for research, but no scientific equipment - "to ensure that the astronaut has space", indicating that one person would go on the mission.

The Chinese space programme began over 30 years ago but early efforts to keep up with US and Russian technology were hampered by the Cultural Revolution that culminated in 1976. The current effort began in 1992 under the codename Project 921 and has been developed in secret. China's wartime strategic capability has long been held in check by the US dominance of global positioning satellites, and the Chinese have often accused the Americans of spying on them. There is mistrust between the nations, with the US not allowing its commercial satellites to be launched by Chinese rockets.

China's space programme, on which it spends an estimated $2.2bn (£1.3bn) a year, may soon be flourishing. A leading defence official, Wang Shuquan, confirmed that the country was planning lunar landings, and the state-run Beijing Youth Daily newspaper has reported on plans to send a research satellite to orbit the Moon within the next three years.

Some scientists have predicted that the Chinese, who did not participate in the International Space Station, might start work on developing their own prototype space station, based on early Russian stations. Two of the Chinese "taikonauts" in line to be selected for the manned flight trained with their Russian counterparts at the Star City space centre near Moscow.

The Shenzhou capsule is based on Russia's Soyuz vessel, with extensive modifications. China bought Russian space suits and a life-support system to study, although officials stressed that everything sent into space would be made in China.

Mr Xie said: "China's space technology has been created by China itself. We may have started later than Russia and the United States, but it's amazing how fast we've been able to do this."

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