BEIJING - The leaders of China's secretive space program have it all figured out: Put humans in orbit by the end of this year. Send people to the moon by maybe 2020. Send people to Mars by, say, 2030. Then, of course, mine for extraterrestrial resources and settle colonies in space.
Just what are the Chinese up to?
Decades after the U.S.-Soviet race to the moon captivated the world during the Cold War, China is quietly conducting a space race of its own, albeit at a more leisurely pace. Manned lunar and Mars missions seem nothing more than fanciful propagandist dreams, experts say, but China is on track to put people in orbit this year.
"The Chinese want to show that they're in the big time," said Phillip Clark, a space expert in Britain who has closely followed the China program. "They want to be taken seriously as a space power."
Should China launch its Shenzhou V spacecraft with astronauts aboard as expected this fall, it will mark the culmination of a nearly 12-year effort to put humans in space - and bring to an end an era in which only two nations could send astronauts to space on their own. If the U.S. space shuttle is still grounded, China might briefly outshine its rival.
The ruling Communist Party is betting billions of dollars that it will be a proud moment for the world's most populous country, which since 1961 has watched as Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong, the space shuttle and a space station flew by.
More than a quarter-century after the devastating setbacks of the Cultural Revolution and, before that, the Great Leap Forward, China is literally playing catch-up.
"Piloted space flight has always been about prestige, and I think that it will demonstrate that `China has stood up,' " said John Pike, an American space flight expert, borrowing a phrase used by Mao after the Communist revolution in 1949. "It only serves to impress."
The big difference between today's march to space and the drama of the 1960s, however, is that this time, the world isn't watching with bated breath. After all, the Chinese human space flight program isn't exactly breaking new ground. It's just shy of where the United States was when it launched Gemini V - some 38 years ago.
While foreign space watchers might shrug, it may be the audience at home that counts most. Such pride-building projects, some argue, can help maintain the stability of a regime that is facing wrenching internal problems.
"It's called the gold-medal strategy," said Zhou Xiaozheng, a professor of sociology at People's University in Beijing. "Years ago, the Chinese government had spent some efforts on getting Olympic games medals, and people bought into this as well. They think that the country is getting more and more powerful because they're getting more and more gold medals."
Military and political interests fueled the nation's space program under Mao, and the human spaceflight project has been conducted in relative secrecy under the aegis of the People's Liberation Army.
Code-named Project 921, the project has inched along since 1992 (the first two digits of the mysterious-sounding code name represent the year the project began). The government appeared unconcerned with moving quickly, which would have required more money up front and might have resulted in embarrassing accidents and could have cost lives.
As it is, Chinese space officials were still stung by embarrassment and deadly accidents in their satellite launch program, which uses booster rockets similar to the ones in Project 921. Two satellite launches in 1995 and 1996 failed, resulting in explosions and possibly dozens of deaths on the ground.
The course charted by Project 921, though, is believed to have been much less bumpy - with the exception of a rumored crash landing of one test vehicle that was carrying animals back from orbit. But details about 921 are murky because the government tightly controls information. All requests for interviews with Chinese space officials were denied for this article. State media reports and interviews with foreign experts, however, provide some key facts:
Twelve elite fighter pilots are training to become astronauts - or taikonauts (based on the Chinese word taikong, which means space) - at a clandestine facility in northwest Beijing. The pilots' names are kept secret, but they average 30 years old and are small in size: 5 feet 7 inches tall and 141 pounds. One or two astronauts will likely be chosen for the first manned orbital flight, which could launch in October or November and last up to a week.