BEIJING -- Training in secret, a dozen fighter pilots are getting ready to make history as China's first astronauts.
Two attended Russia's cosmonaut school, but little else is known about them. China's communist government, pursuing a unique, costly propaganda prize and worried about embarrassing setbacks, hasn't announced their names or a launch date.
But with confidence growing after three test launches of empty spacecraft, foreign experts say China's astronauts could carry its gold-starred red flag into space as early as this year.
"The day that we achieve our dream of space flight is not far off," program director Su Shuangning said in a rare interview with the state newspaper Liberation Daily News.
A manned launch would make China only the third nation to send a human into space, after Russia and the United States.
It's a prize that Chinese leaders covet.
They have cast off leftist dogma in favor of economic reform, and now try to bind China together with such flag-waving appeals to nationalism -- a strategy seen prominently in the effort that secured the 2008 Olympics for Beijing.
Success in space also could boost the Communist Party's public support after corruption scandals that have ruined its image.
China's propaganda goals echo the U.S.-Russian space race of the 1960s that made heroes of Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. Yet Beijing so far is striving to keep its pilots anonymous.
First 12 pilots
State media say the first trainees are 12 pilots from the People's Liberation Army, picked from among 2,000 applicants.
Space officials won't release other information and rejected a request to visit their training center, said to be a converted medical laboratory in Beijing.
"I think they're saying as much as they think they can," said Phillip Clark, a British expert on China's space effort.
Russia's cosmonaut training center outside Moscow says two Chinese astronauts studied there in 2000. Clark said a friend of his met the pair, and they gave their names as Li Qinlong and Wu Zi.
In the only disclosure about their training in China, the newspaper Labor News said in April that the astronauts were preparing for possible emergencies during liftoff by practicing escapes from a space capsule at a launch site in the Gobi Desert.
That base, one of three Chinese launch sites, is in Jiuquan, a town whose name means "Liquor Springs" -- the only rakish element so far in a methodical, low-key program.
The latest capsule, called Shenzhou No. 3 or SZ-3, blasted into orbit from Jiuquan in March amid huge fanfare, carrying a mannequin in a spacesuit meant to test its life-support system.
President Jiang Zemin was on hand, dressed in a military-style green uniform. State television showed him speaking in front of a photo backdrop of nationalistic symbolism -- fireworks bursting over the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing.
After the drum-shaped capsule landed in China's northern grasslands, officials said the 10-day flight showed it can keep humans alive.
As to a date for manned flight, the government says only that it will happen by 2005.
But if one more test flight goes smoothly, "I think the Chinese will be tempted to put a crew on SZ-5, either at the end of this year or in the first six months of next year," said Clark.
Adding to hints that the fifth Shenzhou flight might carry a crew, state media say China will announce the identities of its astronauts in advance of that launch.
China's space program is more than three decades old. It launched its first satellite in 1970 and fires payloads into orbit for American, European and other clients aboard giant Long March rockets.
The government announced plans in 1992 for manned flight and a space station. Officials say they want to mine the moon and explore Mars.
Development has speeded up in recent years with a bigger budget and Russian help. China has bought a Soyuz capsule and a spacesuit to study, but officials say all equipment used by its astronauts will be made domestically.
"Our late start doesn't necessarily mean we are developing slowly. We can learn from the experience of others and take shortcuts," Su, the program director, said in the lengthy but vague interview April 24 in the Liberation Army Daily.
Based on Russian designs, the Shenzhou capsules are big enough for a crew of three.
China has added steering rockets -- essential for space station docking. That will put its first pilots ahead of their Russian and American counterparts of the early 1960s, who couldn't control their one-seat capsules and were dismissed by some as not pilots but just a "man in a can."
China already is thought to be working on a rocket able to lift 70 tons -- enough to put a space station in orbit or humans on the moon.
"I believe the next set of footprints on the moon will be Chinese," said Clark.