JIUQUAN, Gansu -- The country is pursuing a space technology program "in line with Chinese characteristics", a top rocket scientist said.
"The scale of our manned space program is modest. It cannot be compared with that of the United States and Russia in terms of manpower and money," Ma Xingrui, deputy commander-in-chief of Project 921 and the Shenzhou VII mission, said at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center (JSLC) in Gansu province.
Project 921 is a three-phased space program started in 1992. It involves a manned spaceflight, building a space lab and setting up a space station before 2020.
Shenzhou VII, which will blast off from the JSLC between 9:07 to 10:27 pm today, includes China's first spacewalk. Experts consider this to be both a milestone for the country and a critical step toward completing the program's second phase in 2010.
China ruled out developing space shuttles and space planes in favor of a ballistic capsule design in the early 1990s. The Chinese Academy of Space Technology, a subsidiary of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CAST), was the primary advocate of the proposal.
Six Shenzhou spacecraft - four unmanned and two manned, all with designs similar to the Russian Soyuz - have been launched since 1999.
Shenzhou scientists are confident the mission will be a success. Ma, as general manager of CAST, was no different.
"The capsule design we picked is in line with our national characteristics and space technology. The status of our spaceships is that of advanced countries in the 1980s and 1990s.
"We're seeing that the Americans, in their new vision of space exploration, have also in effect dropped their space shuttle program, which entails immense difficulties and heavy costs," Ma said.
Since February 2003, when the US space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere, the US has relied on the Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station.
Ma said the Chinese Long March 2F (LM-2F) rockets - also developed by CAST - lag behind their American and Russian counterparts in carrying capacity. "But the reliability (of LM-2F) has been phenomenal. It has successively lifted off 66 consecutive times," he said.
China's next-generation space rockets, the LM-5, is under development and will be introduced between 2014 and 2015.
"By that time we will be able to match the current carrier rockets of the US and Russia," Ma said.
China's greatest space asset lies in its young generation of scientists and engineers, he said.
"A newer generation of space engineers and scientists has already matured. Our spacecraft technicians have an average age of 33. The rocket engineering team, too, is below 40 years old on average.
"This age advantage is the fundamental assurance to the sustainable development of China's space technology," Ma said.