Liftoff! China launches manned space mission, becoming third spacefaring nation

Wednesday, October 15th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GOBI DESERT, China (AP) _ Against a clear blue sky, China fired its first astronaut into orbit without any visible hitches Wednesday, becoming only the third nation capable of manned spaceflight. The government said the mission was going smoothly and its ``taikonaut'' radioed back: ``I feel good.''

The launch capped a decade-long effort by China's secretive, military-linked space program that communist leaders hope will boost the nation's image abroad _ and their own standing at home among their own people.

The rocket carrying Lt. Col. Yang Liwei, a 38-year-old fighter pilot turned astronaut, streaked into the sky at precisely 9 a.m. local time (9 p.m. EDT Tuesday) from a Gobi Desert launch pad in China's remote northwest. The government said the Shenzhou 5 space capsule entered orbit 10 minutes later.

China Central Television broke into its programming to announce the liftoff, and 28 minutes later broadcast the first gripping scenes of the rocket blasting off. CCTV, which ran stirring music that was strikingly similar to the ``Star Wars'' theme, said the flight would last 14 orbits and 21 hours, with a landing early Thursday in China's northern grasslands.

The capsule was ``operating normally in orbit,'' the commander of mission control was quoted as saying.

Yang hurtled around the planet for most of the day, making a planned orbit shift in midafternoon and stopping work only to rest and eat Chinese food designed especially for space travel.

Later, with his mission nearly half over, he spoke to ground control and his boss, Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan. ``Don't worry _ I'm going to work hard to accomplish the task,'' he said.

Shenzhou 5 is scheduled to land on the Inner Mongolian grasslands of northern China at about 6 a.m. Thursday (6 p.m. EDT Wednesday).

The United States, Vietnam and other governments congratulated China on what the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, whose Space Shuttle Columbia was lost in February, called ``an important achievement in the history of human exploration.''

``The Chinese people have a long and distinguished history of exploration,'' said NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe. He wished China ``a continued safe human space flight program.''

Chinese President Hu Jintao, who was at the launch base for the liftoff, called it ``the glory of our great motherland,'' the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

``The party and the people will never forget those who have set up the outstanding merit in the space industry for the motherland, the people and the nation,'' Hu said.

State television showed Hu and a group of senior officials and military officers watching the launch from outdoor bleachers, craning their necks to follow the rocket toward space. The president, wearing large sunglasses, grinned once it became clear the launch was successful.

China's leaders long ago replaced their leftist ideology with sweeping economic reform, and resort instead to flag-waving nationalistic appeals to bind their nation together _ a strategy reflected in Beijing's successful campaign for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

The flight comes four decades after the former Soviet Union and the United States pioneered manned spaceflight. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in 1961. Less than one month later, the United States launched Alan B. Shepard Jr. John Glenn became the first American in orbit in 1962.

China kept details of its launch secret, announcing only that it would take place between Wednesday and Friday. Yang's identity wasn't officially disclosed until one minute after liftoff, though Chinese and Hong Kong media had reported it earlier.

On Wednesday morning, the only road to the launch site was crowded with traffic, including military vehicles and civilian tour buses. Private cars were turned back and phone calls to the base were blocked.

CCTV canceled plans to show the launch live, suggesting that Chinese leaders might be worried about the possible political impact if anything went wrong.

China used to broadcast satellite launches, but stopped after a rocket blew following liftoff in 1995, reportedly killing six people on the ground.

CCTV showed Yang being cheered by space workers at an outdoor predawn ceremony at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, some 175 miles northeast of the city of Jiuquan. Dressed in his space suit with the visor up, he waved to the crowd and saluted other officers.

``You carry the dreams of our nation into space with you,'' Hu told Yang before the launch. The taikonaut (TYE'-koh-nawt) replied, ``Thanks to you, and thanks to the people, for putting confidence in me.''

Taikonaut is an English nickname based on the Chinese word for space, ``taikong.''

Once in orbit, Xinhua said, Yang was ``reading a flight manual in the capsule of the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft and looked composed and at ease.''

``I feel good,'' Yang radioed back from space after a half-hour in flight, according to Xinhua.

At midday, Xinhua reported that Yang had a lunch of diced chicken and rice with dates and nuts, and then took a nap.

Yang, an astronaut since 1998, was picked for the flight from among three finalists. They have trained for years, and the field was narrowed from 14 in recent weeks.

The launch comes after four test flights, beginning in 1999, of unmanned Shenzhou capsules.

China has had a rocketry program since the 1950s. It launched a manned space program in the 1970s amid the political upheaval of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution but later abandoned it. The program was relaunched in 1992 under the codename Project 921.

The budget for the program is secret, but foreign experts say it totals at least $1 billion _ a major commitment for China, where the average person makes $700 a year.

The Shenzhou, or ``Divine Vessel,'' is based on the three-seat Russian Soyuz capsule, though with extensive modifications. China also paid Moscow to train at least two astronauts. But Beijing insists everything sent into space will be developed and made in China.

China also has tried to reassure its neighbors the military-linked program is no threat. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue repeated that Tuesday, saying the Shenzhou flight was a key step in the ``peaceful development of space.'' Other Chinese said the same.

``We need to develop our economy, so there is very little possibility the spaceship will be used for military purposes,'' said Li Gecheng, a 53-year-old retiree in Beijing. ``I can say there is no possibility.''