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China: Man Launched Into Space In 'Historic Step'

China today entered an exclusive club by becoming only the third nation in history to successfully place an astronaut into Earth's orbit. A space capsule carrying a Chinese Air Force officer is now circling the planet and is scheduled to return early tomorrow morning. Chinese President Hu Jintao is hailing the mission as a "historic step" for the country, while the U.S. calls the launch an important achievement.

Prague, 15 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- China today launched a man into Earth's orbit, making it only the third country in the world to achieve this feat, following the former Soviet Union and the United States.

The Shenzhou-5 space capsule, atop a Long March II rocket, lifted off early today from a satellite launch center in northwest China. The astronaut, a 38-year-old air force lieutenant colonel named Yang Liwei, entered orbit 10 minutes later.

Before the launch, Yang expressed confidence in the success of the mission. "I appreciate the care and encouragement from President Hu and other leaders," he said. "I appreciate the training I received from my country and my people. I will live up to the expectations of the motherland and of the people, and I will face this mission with my utmost. I promise the entire country and President Hu that I will definitely complete the mission. I won't let you down."

The spacecraft is expected to complete 14 orbits in a mission lasting more than 20 hours.

After the launch, Chinese President Hu Jintao hailed the mission as a "historic step" for the Chinese people. "Comrades, the long-awaited launch of the Shenzhou-5 is a success. The spaceship that our country developed and which carries our own trained astronaut has already entered space with no problems. We have won the first battle for a manned space program. Chinese people have made a meaningful historical step in scaling the heights of global science and technology," Hu said.

The mission 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 at the event.

Sean O'Keefe, the administrator of the U.S. space agency NASA, today congratulated China on what he called an "important achievement in the history of human exploration."

ITAR-TASS quoted the first deputy of the Russian space agency, Nikolai Moiseev, as welcoming the launch and congratulating China for "joining the club of space powers."

U.S. astronaut Michael Foale, speaking last weekend at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, welcomed China to the space club. "We can only welcome the Chinese into the sphere of human space flight. 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," he said.

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 the 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. 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," Ashbourne said.

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 from 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.

Robert Karniol, Asia-Pacific editor of "Jane's Defense Weekly," told RFE/RL: "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. 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 to counter U.S. power and influence."

The Chinese flight is taking 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 turned 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" onto 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 brought into question as NASA investigates the breakup of one of its ships during re-entry last February. That disaster killed all seven astronauts on board, the second fatal accident involving the U.S. shuttle program.

Perhaps with those tragedies in mind, China canceled its plans to broadcast this morning's launch live on television.

The space capsule carrying Yang is expected to return to Earth at 1 a.m. Prague time tomorrow somewhere in Inner Mongolia, after covering half a million kilometers in orbit.