BEIJING -- It was a small step in China's manned space program but a giant leap in the Chinese president's quest for a place in history.
Flanked by army officers, a grin broad across his face, President Jiang Zemin watched proudly Monday night as China fired the third in a series of unmanned test capsules into orbit.
"Comrades, the launch of the Shenzhou III spaceship was a success!" Jiang said after a Long March II F rocket carried the craft into orbit. "This is a new milestone in the development of our aerospace industry. I, like everyone, am very happy."
Jiang's attendance for the launch was a sign of his communist government's growing confidence in the viability of its ambitious decade-old program.
'Just the first step'
China hopes to join Russia and the United States as the only nations to have put people in space, and says it aims eventually to have a permanently manned space station.
"Manned spaceflight is just the first step," the official Xinhua News Agency quoted Jiang as saying.
While a manned launch may not come before Jiang's expected retirement as head of the Communist Party this autumn and as president next year, success could boost the 75-year-old's drive to be enshrined in Chinese history alongside Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiaoping.
State television devoted considerable chunks of its midday and evening national news broadcasts to Jiang's visit to the Jiuquan launch center, near where the Great Wall ends in the desert of northwest China's Gansu province.
The launch "greatly boosted the whole nation's morale," Jiang told army officers and engineers he met Tuesday during an inspection of the launch center.
It "shows that the Chinese people are perfectly capable of understanding the most advanced technologies by making their own innovations and can be part of the high-tech world," Jiang said.
From the television images, the launch looked textbook. And while the language might be unintelligible to non-Chinese audiences, the countdown -- "San, er, yi, dianhuo! Qifei!" ("Three, two, one, ignition! Lift-off!") -- led smoothly into the roar of rockets that flamed into the night sky.
China has not said when its first "taikonauts," coined from the Chinese word for outer space, will blast into orbit.
But Xinhua said the Shenzhou (pronounced "shun-jo") III vessel "can carry out all the functions of a manned craft" and was carrying "dummy astronauts" as well as instruments to simulate and monitor human vital signs.
Scientists for the first time also tested an emergency escape system for astronauts during the launch, state media said. Ten minutes after take off, the craft separated from the rocket and moved into preset orbit.
The craft, consisting of an orbital module, re-entry module, and propulsion and access sections, will orbit once every 90 minutes and remain in space for "a couple of days," the China Daily said.
The previous two unmanned Shenzhou vessels were launched in November 1999 and January 2001.