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China: Preparations Begin To Launch Man Into Space, Enter Exclusive Club

  • Breffni O'Rourke

China is poised to begin its first manned space mission by launching a rocket that will carry a single astronaut into orbit and return him safely to Earth. If successful, it would signal the arrival of China into an exclusive club.

Prague, 14 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- China's expected launch of a manned spacecraft will make it only the third country in the world to achieve this feat, after the former Soviet Union and the United States.

The "Shenzhou 5" space capsule -- atop a Long March II rocket -- is set to lift off as early as tomorrow from a satellite-launch center in northwest China. The rocket will be carrying a single astronaut, whose goal is to orbit Earth 14 times.

China's official "People's Daily" reported that the astronaut who will make the flight is being selected today from a pool of three. According to the newspaper, the exact timing of the mission depends on a number of factors, including weather conditions.

The manned space flight is the culmination of years of development by the China National Space Administration and other Chinese agencies. Within the international space community, there is great excitement over the event. U.S. astronaut Michael Foale, speaking over the weekend at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, welcomed China to the club.

"We can only welcome the Chinese into the sphere of human space flight," he said. "I think it's a wonderful achievement if their flight goes successfully. I think it's an event that we will mark at the beginning of this century in history."

Russian cosmonaut Aleksandr Kaleri, who was also at Baikonur, said of China, "It's such an ancient culture, so we can only be happy that they could become the third country in the world to be able to do that. This shows their high scientific and industrial potential."

Kaleri was right when he mentioned industrial potential, because the manned space mission is China's way of announcing that it is moving into the front ranks of technological powers. Gone are the days when China was scoffed at as a maker of cheap tin toys. The Chinese are saying -- like the Japanese did a generation before them -- that the business world has reason to respect the quality of China's technology.

As London-based space analyst Alexandra Ashbourne put it, the Chinese are playing for high stakes. "They have huge confidence in what is going to happen tomorrow, that's my understanding," Ashbourne said. "Whether it is just that they have learned to do their public relations better [than before], we in the West are clearly being led to believe that this will be a tremendous leap forward."

Conversely, Ashbourne estimated that the failure of the Chinese space mission could be such a blow that it would set their space program back by a decade or more.

It is no coincidence the flight is occurring at the same time as a plenum of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee in Beijing, a meeting that has been discussing difficult economic reforms. These reforms are meant to further free the economy from bureaucratic red tape, but at the same time the party is trying to prevent the gap between rich and poor from increasing under market mechanisms.

The party also needs to reap the propaganda benefit of a successful space mission at home, where it can boost national pride and self-confidence.

With growth nearing 8 percent this year, the Chinese economy is on track to be the world's biggest in the foreseeable future -- if it is not undermined by stresses and strains in the country's social fabric caused by the reforms.

Of course, the manned space mission also has a strategic value for China, which has huge numbers of troops but is not particularly advanced in military technology.

"They can't go toe-to-toe and get involved in a one-for-one kind of arms race with the United States across the whole spectrum of military activity," said Robert Karniol, Asia-Pacific editor of "Jane's Defense Weekly." "What they try to do instead is narrow the focus of their developing capabilities under a concept that they have called 'magic bullets.' And space-based activity is with certainty one of the 'magic bullets' they look to counter U.S. power and influence."

The Chinese flight will take place 42 years after the first such mission into space. When cosmonaut Yurii Gagarin went aloft as the first man in space in 1961, the heavens shook. His short journey into space was a striking achievement, and the Soviets knew how to extract the maximum propaganda value from the event.

Coming at the height of the Cold War, it fired the imagination of the world, and seemed to prove that mankind really was entering a new era different from anything that had gone before.

The United States was acutely aware of Moscow's success, and in reply bent its vast technical and scientific resources to the task of putting a man on the moon. In 1969, that vision became a reality when astronaut Neil Armstrong made his "giant leap for mankind" on the surface of the moon.

In the years that followed, there were other space missions, including a U.S.-Soviet linkup in orbit in the 1970s, Moscow's record-breaking "Mir" orbiting space station, and the development of the U.S. space-shuttle program.

Now, the shuttle program has been suspended and its usefulness put into question as the U.S. space agency NASA investigates the breakup of one of its ships during re-entry last February. That disaster killed all seven astronauts onboard, the second fatal accident involving the U.S. shuttle program.

Perhaps with those tragedies in mind, China announced that it has canceled its planned live broadcast of the launch.