China unveils plans for sending up its 'taikonaut'
Friday, January 3, 2003
BEIJING -- First came the Soviet cosmonaut. Then the American astronaut made it to outer space. Now, says China, it's time for a new pioneer to make history far above the Earth -- the taikonaut.
After a decade of secretive preparation, China disclosed plans Thursday to launch a manned spacecraft this year, an achievement the communist government hopes will win it public support at home and respect abroad.
A successful launch would stand as a trophy to China's progress after two decades of economic reform. It would make this only the third nation -- after Russia and the United States -- capable of sending a human into space on its own.
Manned flight planned
The Shenzhou V capsule carrying at least one of the country's astronauts -- dubbed taikonauts after the Chinese word for space -- is to be launched in the second half of 2003, according to the official China News Service.
The office of Yuan Jie, director of the Shanghai Aerospace Bureau, confirmed the report.
"Shenzhou V will be manned," said an official there who wouldn't give his name. He quoted Yuan as saying it would be a "breakthrough in China's manned aerospace history."
The announcement came as the unmanned Shenzhou IV, launched this week, circled the Earth on a test flight that the government says is testing life-support equipment. Media reports have described the Shenzhou IV as a test flight, suggesting the manned mission also would involve orbiting.
Taikonauts are drawn from the ranks of Chinese fighter pilots and have trained for years to fly on the Shenzhou. The state press says the first corps numbers about a dozen. But so far, the military-linked space program has withheld their identities and released few details of their training.
China has had a rocketry program since the 1950s, and missiles are regarded as one of its strongest military technologies. The space program's commercial arm boosts satellites into orbit aboard giant Long March rockets for European and U.S. clients.
Beijing has nurtured the dream of manned space flight since at least the early 1970s, when the beginnings of a program were scrapped amid the upheaval of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
The current effort, begun in 1992 and code-named Project 921, is based on Russian technology with extensive modifications. Chinese officials stress that everything sent into orbit will be designed and manufactured in China.
At least two taikonauts have been sent to Russia's cosmonaut school for training. Others are now believed to be training.
The Shenzhou, or "Sacred Vessel," is modeled on Russia's Soyuz capsule, which can carry three people. Foreign experts say the first Chinese flight probably will carry at least two astronauts, letting Beijing claim a record of a kind -- the first debut flight by a spacefaring nation with more than one person aboard.
China's propaganda goals echo those of the U.S.-Soviet space race, though its first manned flight would come more than four decades after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin circled the Earth in April 1961. John Glenn became the first American in orbit in 1962.
Encouraged by the success of Shenzhou flights since the first unmanned capsule blasted into orbit in November 1999, Chinese officials have talked eagerly, though vaguely, about a space station and possibly exploring Mars.
"The short-term goal is to send Chinese into space. The grand vision for the future is to explore space. Both are inspiring to the Chinese people," said Huang Chunping, chief commander of rocketry for the Shenzhou project, quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency.
In a rare glimpse into the astronaut program, the newspaper China Space News posted a photograph on its Web site showing two men in space suits, possibly the first public view of the taikonauts' faces.
The two men -- one grinning broadly -- had their helmets removed and were standing next to a metal staircase, possibly at China's launching base in the Gobi desert. By contrast, earlier pictures showed astronauts from behind or with their faces obscured by helmets.
Though they never announce flights in advance, Chinese authorities have said the fifth Shenzhou launch will carry a crew. Space officials also have said they will identify the first taikonauts before that flight.
Foreign experts have suggested two reasons for such disclosures -- growing confidence and China's desire to squelch rumors that it might try to cover up launch-related deaths, as Moscow was accused of doing in the 1970s.
That growing bravado was demonstrated by Yuan Jiajun, commander of the Shenzhou IV flight, who was quoted Thursday already offering good wishes to the first Chinese space travelers.
"I want to say to you: I wish you a good trip and hope you are coolheaded and calm," Yuan said, according to the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily. "We will be waiting for your victorious return at the landing site!"