China's Next Space Goal: A Station

China's first man in space, astronaut Yang Liwei reacts to a speech during the opening ceremony of an exhibition on China's fist manned space Mission at the Hong Kong Science Museum, Saturday, Nov. 1, 2003. Beijing gave Hong Kong the opportunity to host Yang's first public appearances since he orbited the Earth 14 times, hoping the instant superstar's visit will infuse locals with a bit of the patriotism that's been missing since the 1997 handover from British sovereignty. AP

China wants a space station within 10 years, a top official said Tuesday in Hong Kong as the nation's first astronaut wrapped up a triumphant tour of the territory.

Beijing has long been secretive about its space ambitions but suddenly became much more open after astronaut Yang Liwei orbited the Earth 14 times in the first manned Chinese space launch last month.

A leading Chinese space official, Hu Shixiang, told a news conference here Tuesday that he has three new goals for the next decade: a space station, a spacewalk and docking technology. It was the first time Chinese officials publicly announced a timeframe for their space station plans.

But China will not rush its program along like the Soviet and Americans did in their space race of the early 1960s, said Hu, deputy commander in chief of the manned space engineering headquarters.

"We need to find a path that matches China's situation," Hu said, appearing before an invitation-only group of Hong Kong editors. The session was shown on live television.

Yang has been pressing the flesh in a string of celebrity-style appearances around Hong Kong and heads Wednesday to the nearby gambling enclave of Macau.

A Chinese space program official said over the weekend that his nation plans to launch a probe to orbit the moon in three to five years, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

China has recently made a series of disclosures about its hopes for the space program, after becoming the third nation to put a man into space.

Officials have said China plans to launch another Shenzhou capsule — like the one in which Yang flew — within two years and eventually wants to send up a permanently manned space station.

Hu did not specify whether his goal for the next decade would be a permanently manned station.

Hu was asked whether China was spending too many billions of dollars on space when many of its people live in poverty, and he replied by saying the budget was small compared to the U.S. space budget, at only about one-tenth as much.

The space program is important for increasing social unity in a fast-developing China, he said.

"This social effect cannot be measured by other things," Hu said.

Hu also revealed that officials were torn over whether to run live broadcasts of the liftoff and landing of Yang's flight. They ultimately opted against it.

If Yang had landed out of the range of cameras, "an entire nation would be worried," Hu said, adding that China might have been unable to conduct a nationwide search for his craft.
  • Lloyd Vries

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