China's Space Launch Next Week?

Personnel approach the cabin of China's third unmanned spaceship "Shenzhou III" Monday afternoon, April 1, 2002 which landed in the central Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. After 11 years of planning, China is on the brink of joining the elite of spacefaring nations. But even as it prepares to make history and reap a propaganda windfall, the communist government is staying silent about a date and other details, wary of risking the damage of public setbacks.
AP
The shape of China's first manned space shot came into sharper focus Wednesday with reports that a single-orbit mission will blast off next week.

The planned launch is to be shown live on television so the government can trumpet its anticipated accomplishment to its citizens and the world.

One media report indicated that a single "taikonaut" — a term based on the Chinese word for space — would fly. Another suggested as many as three might take part.

Fourteen finalists hoping to be the first Chinese in space converged upon a hotel in a northwestern town as the mission neared, a newspaper said.

In Indonesia, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said the Shenzhou 5 craft would take off with a human crew "soon, very soon."

If the launch is completed successfully, China would join the United States and the former Soviet Union — now Russia — as the only countries that have sent manned missions into space.

The Oct. 15 date of the inaugural launch — a 90-minute flight that will orbit the planet once — was reported Wednesday by Sina.com, a major mainland Web site. It quoted Phoenix TV, a Hong Kong broadcaster with close ties to the Beijing leadership — and with a former Chinese military officer at its helm.

The flight would follow a decade of preparations and would be held a day after the end of the Chinese Communist Party's plenum, a major political meeting. That schedule — coupled with the National Day holiday last week — allows China's leaders to link the party to the patriotic fervor surrounding the space program.

"China's space technology has been created by China itself. We may have started later than Russia and the United States, but it's amazing how fast we've been able to do this," Sina.com quoted Xie Guangxuan, director of the government's China Rocket Design Department, as saying.

The Shenzhou capsule is based on Russia's Soyuz vessel, with extensive modifications. China bought Russian space suits and a life support system to study, though officials stress that everything sent up will be made in China.

Sina.com said Xie was "full of confidence" about the launch and said the beginning of the mission would be carried live by China Central Television, the government broadcaster that reaches nearly a billion Chinese.

The bursts of information, after days of silence, suggest the government is brimming with confidence about its secretive space program. Reports about the Shenzhou 5 launch were all over the state-controlled newspapers Wednesday.

Xie was quoted as saying that Shenzhou 5 — the name means "sacred vessel" in Chinese — would carry 2.2 pounds of plant seeds for research — but no scientific equipment "to ensure the astronaut has space," Sina.com said.

Xie didn't say how many "taikonauts" would be participating in the mission. Sina.com's language suggested that it would be only one.

The state-controlled newspaper Beijing Star Daily said 14 taikonaut finalists were staying at a hotel in the northwestern province of Gansu, the expected launch site, and that three would become finalists to soar into orbit. It quoted anonymous space-program officials.

All 14 have qualified for space travel and passed psychological tests "with honors," the newspaper said.

"I can guarantee you that most of the astronauts can fulfill their assignment successfully," one official was quoted as saying in the report by another state-controlled newspaper, the Guangzhou-based Express News.

Another official was quoted as saying project leaders want "a middle-sized figure, nimble movement, the ability to withstand hardships and a teamwork mindset."

The mission will also herald the debut of authentic Chinese food calibrated for consumption in space, another Web site reported.

"They'll be able to eat shredded pork with garlic sauce and kungpao chicken," China.com said. "It will be more tasty than Western food. After the meal, green tea will be available to increase the astronaut's spirits."

Chinese astronauts have been training for years, though the military-linked program has never identified the trainees.

Beijing has nurtured the dream of manned space flight since at least the early 1970s, when its first program was scrapped during the upheaval of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. The current effort began in 1992 under the code name Project 921.

Four unmanned Shenzhou capsules have been launched, orbiting the Earth for up to a week and landing by parachute in the northern grasslands of China's Inner Mongolia region.

Wen, asked about the launch at a regional meeting in Bali, Indonesia, said it was around the corner.

"This will be very soon, very soon," Wen said. Asked about a specific date, he demurred: "We haven't decided."

By Ted Anthony

  • David Hancock

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