China set for second manned launch

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The Independent Online

Today, Shenzhou VI, China's second manned space mission, is expected to blast off from the edge of the Gobi desert. A successful launch will make China only the third nation, after the US and the former Soviet Union, to have sent humans into orbit twice.

Although China's National Space Administration refused to confirm the launch, the Xinhua news agency reported that, barring bad weather, Shenzhou VI would lift off from the Jiuqan satellite launch centre in Gansu province. The spacecraft will have a crew of two taikonauts (astronauts) on board for a five-day mission. Chinese media named them as Zhai Zigang and Nie Haisheng, both fighter pilots selected from a pool of 14 candidates.

China sent its first man, Yang Liwei, into space in October 2003, prompting ecstatic celebrations across the country. He spent just 21 hours in orbit, a sign of how far behind the US and Russia the Chinese space programme is, but the Shenzhou VI mission is a significant step forward.

"The technology isn't exactly breakthrough, but by being able to put it all together and make it work, China is sending a message that it has the integration skills, the follow-through capability, to build this kind of technology," said David Baker, a space analyst with Jane's Defence Weekly. China plans to start building its own space station within five years and to send an unmanned probe to the Moon by 2010.

Despite its late entry into the field of manned spaceflight, China has had a space programme since 1958 and put its first satellite into orbit in April 1970. Based at Jiuqan, a closely guarded and remote city near Inner Mongolia, some 15,000 scientists and technicians work on the programme. Its budget is a state secret, but is believed to be in the region of $2bn (£1.1bn) a year, a fraction of Nasa's $16.2bn annual budget.