Forty years late, China joins the space race

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CHINA OFFICIALLY joined the manned space race over the weekend by launching a craft designed to carry astronauts into outer space. The breakthrough flight by the Shenzhou, or "magic vessel," means that Peking is likely to send humans into space next year, some four decades after the former Soviet Union and the United States.

The dome-shaped craft, which resembled the Apollo series that took American astronauts to the moon in the late Sixties, was in space for 21 hours and orbited the globe 14 times. It re-entered the Earth's atmosphere early yesterday local time, making China the third nation in history to launch a vehicle capable of carrying humans into space.

State television and newspapers were swift to hail the test flight as a step towards putting the nation of 1.3 billion firmly on the world map and building national pride. Although China remains a poverty-stricken agricultural nation, where the average annual income is less than pounds 200 and urban unemployment is rising, it has strong ambitions to regain its former glory and become a world power in the 21st century.

"The successful test flight demonstrates that China's spacecraft and new carrier rocket are excellent in performance," the official Xinhua news agency said. "China deserves a place in the world in the area of high technology.

"This shows that China is fully capable of independently mastering the most advanced technology."

Phillip Clark, a British expert on the Chinese programme, said: "This looks to have been an excellent start to the Chinese manned space programme and puts them on a course for a manned flight in about a year's time."

China's state television showed footage of the craft blasting off from the Jiuquan satellite launch centre in the northwestern province of Gansu at 6.30am on Saturday (22.30 GMT Friday).

The craft detached itself from its launching vehicle, the new generation Long March 2-F rocket, and entered orbit 10 minutes after take-off, guided by China's newly constructed space control network.

Its touch-down was on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia at 3.30am yesterday (1930 GMT Saturday).

According to the aerospace news magazine Flight International, the spacecraft was understood to be based on the Russian Soyuz, but with two pairs of solar panels to generate on-board power and a cylindrical forward module rather than the Soyuz's spherical one. It is believed to have a mass of 8.4 tons and could take up to four astronauts.

China launched its first rocket in 1959, one year after the late chairman Mao Tse-tung declared that China would develop atomic bombs, missiles and satellites to compete with the best of the world's technology.

Although Peking's progress was hampered by isolation and a series of disastrous political campaigns, it still put its first satellite into space in 1970.

The Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin finally gave the go-ahead for the nation's highly secretive manned space programme, known as Project 921, in 1992, after its satellite launching skills were sufficiently advanced.

In 1996, two potential Chinese astronauts underwent training at the Star City Space Centre near Moscow, studying the full programme that is needed for manned flight, including space navigation, astronomy, physics and the operation of an orbital station.

However, a string of satellite launch failures in China at that time slowed down the manned space programme, and even the weekend's launch came later than expected: China's state media had earlier predicted the launch of the "magic vessel" would coincide with the 50th anniversary of the people's republic on 1 October.

In a rare report on space last month, Peking's official newspapers quoted a senior executive of the government-run China Aerospace Industrial Co as saying plans for the launch of a manned spacecraft were set for the end of this year or early next year. Those plans now look likely to run as scheduled.


IN CONTRAST to China's secretive space programme, other countries are co-operating more on the development of space technologies.

The biggest challenge in international space science is the building and operation of a space station by the US, Russia, Japan, nine members of the European Space Agency and Canada. It will be the world's biggest international scientific project.

However, national pride and rising demand for communications, broadcasting and meteorological satellites means leading industrial countries continue to develop their own programmes.

The US remains in a strong position through its space shuttle programme. Nasa had to rebuild its reputation after the Challenger shuttle exploded in January 1986 killing its seven crew. It may try to send astronauts back to the moon or to Mars after 2010.

Russia, whose creaking Mir space station was abandoned in August, was further embarrassed when a booster system failed on its unmanned Mars 96 project and it remained circling in Earth orbit. The Russian Space Agency is developing an automatic space craft to dock with the international space station and a rocket system for forecasting tropical cyclones.

The European Space Agency also had a setback when an Ariane 5 rocket veered off course and had to be destroyed 39 seconds after launch in June 1996. The agency said this year that it will send a rocket into the Martian atmosphere in 2003.

Japan's H-11 satellite-launching rocket is being developed solely with Japanese technology.