China Space Shot Soon

This undated photo provided by John Walker shows a diver at the site of a wreck of a Lockheed-Martin T-33A Air Force jet found in April 2009 off the Southern California coast. Military officials are investigating a historian's report that the wreckage of an Air Force jet lost at sea over 50 years ago has been found off the Southern California coast. A volunteer group headed by amateur historian Pat Macha claims it found debris of a Lockheed-Martin T-33A that went missing on Oct. 15, 1955. (AP Photo/John Walker) ** NO SALES **
AP Photo/John Walker
China's first manned spacecraft could be launched "as early as next month" from a pad in the country's remote northwest and will probably contain one crew member, the official Communist Party newspaper reported Thursday.

People's Daily, in its online edition, gave no further details about a timetable for the Shenzhou 5, which the government has said will hurtle into space with a Chinese crew aboard by 2004. The flight will probably last 24 hours, the newspaper said.

The mention of the schedule in a lengthy general article about China's dreams of manned spaceflight was the most specific signal yet by the Chinese government that such a launch is imminent.

"China's first piloted space journey could occur as early as next month," the article said. "The Shenzhou 5 is set to soar."

China's leaders have invested significant energy and resources in their secretive military-affiliated space program and have tried to stir nationalist sentiment about the project, much as the United States did in the space race of the 1960s against the Soviet Union.

Four decades later, only the Americans and the Russians have sent manned craft into space. Any launch in coming weeks could take advantage of China's Oct. 1 National Day, the anniversary of the founding of the Communist government and a time of particularly patriotic fervor.

"No doubt that the successful flight of a piloted Shenzhou 5 would catapult China into top-drawer status in terms of nations capable of doing heady things in space," People's Daily said. It said success would propel China into "an exclusive country club."

The publication of the article reflects the Chinese government's growing confidence in its ability to pull off a manned launch successfully. Any glitches — particularly one involving the death of a Chinese astronaut, known as a "taikonaut" after the Chinese word for space — would be a public-relations debacle for Beijing.

People's Daily said Shenzhou 5 would be carried into space by a Long March 2F rocket and would be launched from the Jiuquan Space Launch Center in the northwestern province of Gansu. It would likely land, as its predecessor did, on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.

"While the crew compartment can hold as many as three passengers, Shenzhou 5 is seemingly to be operated by a lone pilot," People's Daily said.

It said Shenzhou 5 would have three modules — an orbital module with science equipment, the crew module and a service module equipped with equipment, solar panels and rocket engines.

Chinese leaders gave the go-ahead for a manned space program in 1992. Now, they say, tens of thousands of scientists and technicians are involved in making it a reality.

People's Daily also outlined China's hopes for a spacefaring future, saying: "Chinese space officials have hinted at a multi-pronged human spaceflight program, including space station construction, as well as eventual travel to the moon, all by 2020."

Earlier this week, Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said China was proceeding apace in its preparations for a manned launch.

"We hope we can realize that goal, sending a man into space, as soon as possible," he said, smiling. "I can't provide any information. I wish I could."

By Ted Anthony