China Mission: 14 Earth Orbits

Planet Earth from outter space. NASA

Chinese astronauts are in the final stages of preparing for a manned space mission that will orbit the Earth 14 times, a state-run newspaper reported Thursday.

The launch, expected sometime this month, will initially send the Shenzhou 5 into an orbit that at its closest will be 125 miles from Earth, the Liberation Daily reported, citing "relevant channels." The spacecraft will later enter a higher orbit of about 220 miles, the report said.

Various, sometimes conflicting reports in the state media have generated some confusion over the details of the mission.

On Wednesday, state-run television and other media, citing senior officials in China's space program, reported that China would send its first person into space on Oct. 15 for a single-orbit, 90-minute flight.

The Liberation Daily report said the launch will take place in the daytime. It did not say how long the mission would last, but gave some details on the candidates for the single-person mission.

The astronauts, all highly experienced fighter pilots, have been training for six years. They are about 5-feet-8 and weigh about 140 pounds, it said.

A successful mission would make China the world's third spacefaring nation, along with the United States and the former Soviet Union.

China began considering a manned launch as early as the 1960s, but due to a lack of technology and resources instead focused on perfecting satellite launching capabilities, the Liberation Daily quoted Qi Farun, chief designer of Shenzhou 5, as saying.

Planning for a manned space mission began 11 years ago.

In an interview conducted at the launch base near the Gobi Desert town of Jiuquan, 900 miles west of Beijing, Qi described improvements to the Shenzhou space craft made as a result of four earlier unmanned space missions.

He said the Shenzhou 5, whose name means "Divine Vessel," was superior to recently launched Russian spacecraft in that its 8-foot, 3-inch diameter was about a third larger, giving an astronaut more room to move and conduct experiments.

After the mission, the capsule will have power and control systems allowing it to be used for research for up to six months, Qi was quoted as saying.

Qi acknowledged some opposition to the project.

"Even among us, there were some who believed spacecraft are too complicated, and require too large an investment, for no obvious return," the Liberation Daily quoted him as saying.

"Complicated things can be unsafe," he said.

Asked about China's motives in reaching for manned space flight, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said the mission would benefit all people, not just China.

"Like many other nations, China's exploration of outer space is purely for peaceful purposes," Zhang said at a regular briefing in Beijing. "China has always supported the `non-weaponization' of space. China will not take part in any arms race in space."

Qi said the Shenzhou 5 mission was of great symbolic importance and was an important step in future missions.

"Earth's resources are limited and are being depleted. Our own coal and natural gas resources are finite, but outer space holds abundant resources and treasures," he said.

"If we don't make any breakthroughs on manned space flight, in the future there won't be a place for China in outer space," he added.


By Elaine Kurtenbach
  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.

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