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China ready for leap into orbit
( 2003-10-13 16:35) (Washington Post)

China is counting down to the launch of a man into Earth orbit, which would fulfill what Chinese officials say is a long-held dream for the emerging world power and make it the third country to embark on manned spaceflight.

Chinese journalists and China's main Web site, http://Sina.com, said that an air force pilot -- being called in English taikonaut, from the Chinese word for outer space, taikong -- is scheduled to board a three-seat spacecraft on a launch pad in western China on the morning of Oct. 15. The craft, called Shenzhou 5, or Divine Vessel 5, is to fly once around the globe and land in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.

There has been no official announcement of a date, but Chinese officials have hinted strongly that the launch would occur this month and Chinese tour agencies have been selling package tours to near the Jiuquan launch site in Gansu province.

Officials have broadly suggested that the first manned flight would carry just one person. Clothed in a cream-colored spacesuit, the astronaut, who was chosen from a Russian-trained team of 14, is to be accompanied on his trip by a 2.2 pound bag of seeds -- some of them from Taiwan -- as part of a scientific experiment in irradiating seeds to increase crop yields, the journalists and Web site said Wednesday.

The program has been cloaked in intense secrecy, and no names of the crew or details of their training have been released.

China's manned venture to orbit the globe is part of an ambitious program by the world's most populous country to explore and develop space for both civilian and military purposes. In recent weeks, scientists have vowed that China would send a rocket to the moon, establish a space station, ring the globe with high-precision satellites and probe the possibility of extracting the moon's mineral wealth, particularly helium-3, a potential energy source.

"It is a dream of Chinese for generations," said Long Lehao, China's top rocket designer. Children here still read of how six centuries ago the mythical Chinese inventor Wan Hoo strapped rockets under his chair and blasted off in a fatal attempt to fly to the heavens. There is even a crater on the moon named for him.

"We have had a dream to fly to the sky for centuries," Long said in an interview Wednesday. "It will be realized soon. Many scientists said that the Earth is the cradle of mankind. I say we should not always stay in the cradle. We must go outside and see what's happening there."

"Our first step was to send an unmanned rocket into space," Long said. "We accomplished that. Our second step is to send a manned rocket into space. Our next step is to conduct an unmanned investigation on the moon within three years. Finally, we will have our own base on the moon."

The launch is scheduled just after a meeting of the decision-making Central Committee of the Communist Party and two weeks after the Oct. 1 national day, when China marked the 54th anniversary of the Communist revolution of 1949.

The space program also looks likely to be roped into a delicate power struggle between President Hu Jintao and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Sources at China Central Television Station said they have been told that Jiang, who has retained his position as head of the military, is scheduled to speak with the taikonaut during his orbit.

China started the program to put a man in space with the launch in 1970 of its first satellite, East Is Red. Since then China has sent 77 satellites into space. The manned space program was canceled because of a lack of funds but was resumed in 1992, under the code name Project 921. Since 1999, four unmanned Shenzhou capsules have been launched, orbiting Earth for up to a week and landing by parachute in Inner Mongolia region.

Some experts worry that China has not carried out enough test flights to ensure the safety of space travelers. The life support systems on Shenzhou 3 are believed to have failed in 2001.

Western experts say they believe China has come this far this fast because of assistance from Russia, which is the only country other than the United States with a record of manned spaceflight.

China's taikonauts were trained partly at Russia's Star City base in the late 1990s, and the Russian firm Energia helped Beijing with technology. The two countries have signed agreements to cooperate on space research, such as a radar satellite the Chinese plan to launch in 2005 specifically designed to penetrate cloud cover, essential for counter-naval missions.

Chinese diplomats have routinely called for a worldwide ban on the weaponization of space, but U.S. officials say that China's space program, which falls under the leadership of the People's Liberation Army, has important military applications.

China is developing space-based capabilities that could be used in the event of a conflict with Taiwan, according to an expert with the U.S. Defense Department. Such space assets in effect "are important force multipliers that can help to even the playing field when you go up against a technologically superior adversary," Mark Stokes, a senior China expert at the Defense Department, said at a forum sponsored by the Heritage Foundation last month.

China's space program also has a madcap side. Since 1987, for example, its scientists have been sending seeds and seedlings aboard rockets. When Russian and U.S. scientists have done this, their goal generally was to test the environment in a spaceship or probe the possibilities of raising plants in outer space.

But China's scientists have hitched rides for thousands of seeds as part of a program to mutate them and turn them into high-yielding crops on Earth, viewed as unusual by Western scientists because seeds can be irradiated more easily in a laboratory. So far, according to Liu Luxiang, the director of the Center of Space Breeding at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, China has approved for farming 11 types of seeds that are descended from those irradiated in space -- six types of rice, two types of wheat, one green pepper, a tomato and a sesame seed. China's state-run media have also heralded cucumbers from space, saying they taste better and resist diseases.

"We have many more types in the pipeline," Liu said in an interview Wednesday. "We don't really know why we are the only ones working to grow the seeds on Earth."

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