Strutting about its future in space, China catapulted a fourth unmanned craft into orbit Monday in a test launch that showcased its itch to send Chinese humans beyond the
Earth - and build its space program into a pillar of national prestige.
As Chinese leaders looked on, the Shenzhou IV spacecraft blasted off from a launch pad in the inky blackness of the Gobi desert and entered a preset orbit. The state-controlled Beijing Times newspaper said the trip would last seven days.
The government said the launch could "soon lead to a manned space voyage."
For China, it was another moment of patriotic sentiment not unlike what surrounded NASA's 1960s Apollo missions in the United States. Morning newspapers arrived two hours later than usual, brimming with coverage of the post-midnight launch. The government-run noon television newscast spent 10 minutes on the topic.
"Flying into space - and flying toward glory," the party newspaper People's Daily enthused. Another newspaper, the Beijing Daily, went even further: "Chinese have never been so close to space. A great cause produces a great spirit."
China's communist leadership, eager to find anything that will bolster national pride and unite the citizenry in a fractious era of economic and social upheaval, has seized upon the space program as a pivot point for patriotism.
While its machinations and costs are highly secretive and launches aren't announced in advance, heavy coverage in the state media and enthusiastic comments by senior officials are deployed to capitalize upon themes of self-reliance and progress - spearheaded, of course, by government and party.
On hand for the launch was Li Peng, head of China's legislature and its former premier. After watching through binoculars, he went down a line of mission-control technicians, grinning and shaking each one's hand as they saluted.
"It is the major undertaking of China - and a major part of building a well-off society and building socialism with Chinese characteristics," Li said.
At least two key members of China's new Politburo Standing Committee also watched the gleaming white craft burst forth from its scaffolding and straight up into the desert night, trailing angry orange fire behind it like a giant sparkler.
Yuan Jiajun, the general commander of the Shenzhou IV, was dreaming even bigger. He postulated a bustling tomorrow for 1.3 billion potential Chinese spacefarers - in an appropriately proletarian frontier, of course.
"Like rich men overseas, everyday Chinese will be able to travel to space in the future," the populist Beijing Youth Daily quoted Yuan as saying. "It will be like taking a public bus in the air."
The program has a long way to go before that happens. China first must join the United States and former Soviet Union in sending its first humans into space, and the latest Shenzhou launch seemed geared toward that goal.
"The astronauts are absolutely capable of making their maiden voyage to outer space," Su Shuangning, commander and designer of the astronaut system for China's manned space program, was quoted as saying.
The Shenzhou IV carries all the equipment for manned flight, and life support and other systems will be tested while it is in orbit, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
Monday marked the second Shenzhou launch in 10 months - the shortest period yet between test flights and a possible sign of growing Chinese confidence. The launch "laid a solid foundation for the country's future task of sending Chinese astronauts to outer space," Xinhua said.
China launched its first unmanned Shenzhou space capsule in November 1999. The capsule - whose name means "Sacred Vessel" - is based on Russian Soyuz technology with extensive Chinese modifications.
A corps of astronauts - fighter pilots from China's air force - has been training for several years. Xinhua said they used the Shenzhou IV for their first training aboard a capsule.
The third Shenzhou flight, launched in March, carried a mannequin in a space suit. After the drum-shaped capsule landed in China's northern grasslands, officials said the 10-day flight showed humans could survive.
China has sent at least two astronauts to Russia for training, and foreign experts believe they now are training others. Officials of the manned space program, code-named Project 921, refuse to release their identities or details of their training.
Monday's launch was controlled from a base in the Chinese city of Xi'an and four tracking ships anchored in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans, Xinhua said. All Shenzhou flights have followed the Russian tradition of returning to earth on land.
By Ted Anthony
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