China plans to put man into orbit this year

Unwilling to cede space to U.S., Beijing steps up costly astronaut program


SHANGHAI, China - China plans to launch a manned capsule into orbit around Earth by the end of the year, accelerating a costly program designed to challenge American pre-eminence in space, official media reported yesterday.

The mission would make China the third nation, after the United States and the former Soviet Union, to put people into orbit using rockets from its own program, a goal China has pursued since Mao Tse-tung began a space program in the early 1970s.

China's push to put an astronaut in space came as its unmanned Shenzhou IV spacecraft orbited Earth for a fourth day in what space program administrators said was a final dry run for a manned flight. Previously, officials had said they expected to put an astronaut into orbit by 2005.

"Shenzhou V will be manned," Yuan Jie, head of the Shanghai Aerospace Institute, said in official news reports. A Shanghai newspaper, Liberation Daily, said the mission would take place in the second half of this year and called it a historic breakthrough to a manned space flight program.

China's determination to become a space power comes even as experts in the United States and Russia, pioneers in the 1960s space race, question the effectiveness and expense of manned space missions as well as the new multibillion-dollar international space station.

European nations and Japan have developed commercial vehicles for launching satellites but have not pushed ahead for full-fledged space programs.

Western experts say China has invested tens of billions of dollars in its military-linked space program because it does not want to cede space to the United States, which has sought to use space-based interceptors to shoot down ballistic missiles.

China also has ambitions for developing industries in space and putting astronauts on the moon and Mars. NASA has not said when it intends to send a manned mission to Mars.

China's preparation for manned space flight has been intensive. China sent astronauts to train in Russia in 1996 and has recently prepared at least a dozen people for space travel at a secret facility. The Shenzhou spacecraft are converted Soviet space capsules from the 1960s that China says can carry people into orbit and return safely.

On previous missions of the Shenzhou, or "divine mission," vehicles, China sent animals and manikins into space. The latest Shenzhou craft, which blasted off from the Jiuquan space center in the Gobi desert just after midnight Monday, carried life-support equipment.

Most details about China's space program are considered state secrets. But the Communist Party has promoted the program as evidence of rising technological prowess.

"Appropriate in stature, quick in movement and unafraid of hardship, Chinese astronauts are obviously superior," Su Shuangning, head of the space program, recently told reporters.

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