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Countdown to second manned space mission
Updated: 2005-10-10 13:34

The Shenzhou spacecraft, based on the robust and thoroughly tested Soviet design for the Soyuz vessel, is basically the same this time as two years ago.

It consists of three modules -- the orbital module where scientific experiments are carried out; the re-entry capsule where the astronauts will spend most of their time; and the service module, which contains fuel and air, solar panels and other technical gear.

During his 21-hour trip to space in 2003, Yang never left the re-entry capsule, but this time will be different.

The two astronauts will enter into the orbital module in the front to conduct a large number of tests, presumably designed to check their physical reactions to conditions in space.

"This is very, very typical of the Chinese space program," said Brian Harvey, the Dublin-based author of a book on China's space endeavors. "They go quite a big step each time. They very rarely repeat missions."

The data collected will be used for what is China's objective for the medium term: a space station to promote cutting-edge scientific research in orbit and boost national pride on the ground.

China's spending on its space program is a state secret, but what is clear is that by international standards it is a mere shoestring budget.

Harvey believes it is around six billion dollars -- or approximately one sixth of the American expenditure.

Still, the question posed by many, is why Beijing is pushing on with its space program at all.

"The answer really lies in prestige first, direct economic and social applications second, and using the space program as a cutting-edge tool for technology third," said Harvey.

As befitting a country proud to tout its 5,000-year history, China is not going into space just for short-term considerations.

"Much more than America, much more than Europe, China really does look at the very, very long-term view," said Baker of Jane's Defence Weekly.

"And it does see that in this century, and it may take the whole of this century, it wants to end up having options to exploit if there is a commercial purpose to mining lunar materials for instance."

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