China today revealed plans to become the planet’s third nation to explore space by blasting off a manned capsule sometime this year.
Such an expedition would represent both a scientific watershed and a public relations coup for China’s military-linked space programme.
News of the plans came as the latest unmanned Chinese craft, Shenzhou IV, spun around the Earth for a fourth day.
The next mission, Shenzhou V, will contain at least one “taikonaut,” the Chinese version of an astronaut, state media announced today.
Yuan Jie, director of the Shanghai Aerospace Bureau, said the flight will take place during the second half of 2003.
Another official at his bureau said the flight would be a “breakthrough in China’s manned aerospace history”.
Only the United States and Russia – now and as the Soviet Union – have sent human beings into space on their own. Astronauts from other nations have been into space, but only by collaborating with either Washington or Moscow.
Astronauts picked from the ranks of fighter pilots in China’s air force have been training for several years to make the first space flights.
Such pioneers would immediately become legendary figures in China, whose propaganda machine is always searching for new demonstrations of patriotism.
It was not immediately clear how many fliers would be on board the Chinese mission – state media used a Chinese character that could be interpreted as singular or plural.
The current craft, Shenzhou IV, was orbiting the Earth today, midway through a seven-day mission. Chinese officials who supervised the launch have been talking for days of an imminent manned space flight.
Beijing has long been enthusiastic about its space programme, which it has cast as a symbol of growing technological progress – much as the US did with Nasa’s Apollo launches during the “space race” of the 1960s against the Soviet Union.
But that self-promotion has been tempered by the secrecy still prevalent among China’s leaders. Much of the space programme’s research is overseen by the military, and launches – Monday’s included – have not been announced in advance, possibly out of fear something might go very publicly wrong.
Earlier this week, President Jiang Zemin called for the continuing development of the programme as he rhapsodised about the Shenzhou IV launch. He called it a “great victory” and implied that manned flights were not far off.
Jiang encouraged all involved to “redouble their efforts and work in a pioneering spirit to make more contributions to the peaceful development of the outer space,” the official Xinhua News Agency said.
Zhang Qingwei, president of the state-run China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, which manufactured the capsule, earlier this week said a manned flight was “just around the corner” if no problems were reported during the current Shenzhou flight.
The Shenzhou IV, which blasted off before dawn on Monday from a rocket base in the Gobi desert, carried all the equipment for manned flight, the government has said. It says the mission is testing life-support and other systems.
Its flight was the fourth for a Shenzhou capsule – whose name means “Sacred Vessel” – and the second in less than 10 months, signalling an increased pace of launches.