Ready to join the club

Monday, October 13, 2003

BEIJING -- Once a remote patch of land, the new launch pad for China's first manned space mission is a Gobi desert oasis -- complete with rocket-shaped streetlights, lush boulevards and restaurants where scientists snack and talk of the stars.

Glimpses of Jiuquan, a town in northwestern China, were splashed across state-controlled newspapers Sunday as a full-on propaganda blitz began and communist leaders counted the hours to the moment they have planned and anticipated for a decade.

The launch of Shenzhou 5, whose name means "Divine Vessel," is set for sometime between Wednesday and Friday, the government says. A successful mission would allow China to join the club of spacefaring nations whose membership is now limited to the former Soviet Union and the United States.

Colorful pictures released by the government showed a gleaming, rocketlike metal sculpture and scarlet flags lining a road into the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu province.

In the background: a deep, inviting blue sky with a trace of gossamer white cloud -- a depiction of a textbook day for a country's orbital debut.

"Our launch center is simply the most beautiful," the Beijing Morning Post said in a headline of thick black-and-red Chinese characters.

Such descriptions provide rare glimpses into China's space program and its trappings. The military-linked program operates under a cloak of secrecy, and repeated requests by foreign journalists to visit have been ignored.

The front-page coverage was a stark departure from recent days, when little on the impending flight was being released officially and the timid state-controlled news media -- accustomed to receiving directives from the government on coverage -- were dribbling out unconfirmed tidbits.

Space research center

The government made it official Friday night, formally announcing the scheduled dates and saying the Shenzhou, powered by a Long March rocket, would orbit the Earth 14 times.

"The moment is getting closer," exulted the western China newspaper Chengdu Evening News, which reported tourists streaming into the Jiuquan region.

Government officials have not identified the astronauts involved or said how many would go up, although the inaugural mission is expected to contain one "taikonaut," a nickname based on the Chinese word for space.

The government's Xinhua News Agency, in a dispatch from Jiuquan, described streets lined with lamps shaped like rockets and spaceships. It described red willows and multicolored bushes along the avenues and said the Ruoshui River, which runs through town, has helped turn Jiuquan into "an oasis ... with unique scenery and a pleasant environment."

"In small restaurants in the town, young space technicians and scientists are often seen when there are projects under way in the launch base," Xinhua said.

Jiuquan, near an ancient, crumbling section of the Great Wall, has been a center of space research since 1958, when Mao Zedong ran China and his insular approach to governing made sure the country was far behind the Soviet Union and the United States in what was then called the "space race."

Northeast of the launch site, more than 500 people linked to China's space dreams are buried -- including, the government says, Marshal Nie Rongzhen, the founder of the country's space program.

On Sunday, a national newspaper, the Guangming Daily, ran an interview with Huang Chunping, chief of rocketry for the manned space program, quoting him as saying the latest Long March rocket represents "great progress."

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