China launches manned rocket

Nation steps into space from Gobi Desert center

ship to orbit 21-23 hours

October 15, 2003|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- Becoming only the third nation to enter the age of space travel, China rocketed a man into space from a launch pad in the Gobi Desert this morning. China's first astronaut, Yang Liwei, was expected to remain in orbit for more than 20 hours.

At exactly 9 a.m. (9 p.m. EDTime yesterday), with Chinese President Hu Jintao looking on, a Long March 2F rocket left a pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China's Gansu province, lifting an 8-ton Shenzhou V space capsule into orbit.

The re-entry module of the Shenzhou was due to return to Earth after 14 orbits over 21 to 23 hours, according to state-controlled news media.

The launch was televised 29 minutes after it occurred, as China's leadership chose not to risk a live broadcast in case something went wrong.

State television broadcast a tape of the launch to its domestic audience and continued replaying it throughout the day, as the planned celebration of a national triumph began.

Hu declared the successful launch "the glory of our great motherland" and a "significant, historic step of the Chinese people in the advance of climbing over the peak of the world's science and technology," according to the official New China News Agency.

It was a shared triumph for China's leaders, presumably including former President Jiang Zemin, who was general secretary of the Communist Party when the manned program began in 1992 and who remains head of the military.

Oddly, though, Jiang was not mentioned in initial state media coverage of the launch.

A national hero

The new national hero is Yang Liwei, China's first taikonaut.

He is the 38-year-old son of a schoolteacher and an official at a state-owned firm from northeastern China's Liaoning Province, Chinese media reported in the hours leading up to the launch.

Until recently, the government had not released the names of any of the astronauts in training.

Yang's older sister reportedly said that Yang was chosen to be a fighter pilot in 1983 and earns a salary of close to $1,200 a month, about 50 percent above the national average.

He is married and has a son.

Yang's previously anonymous life is sure to be transformed in the days and weeks ahead, as China's newest hero is crowned.

Controlled publicity

The delayed broadcast of the launch was the carefully staged public climax of a program held in relative secrecy since its inception under the code name Project 921.

State media had given only sketchy reports about four previous unmanned test flights, and only since Friday night's official announcement that the launch would be today has the press bombarded the public with details about the program.

On Monday night, China Central Television's science channel began airing a 20-part documentary about space.

In recent days, China's newspapers and television have told their audience about the physical attributes of the astronaut trainees, the cream-colored interior of the spacecraft and the meals that will be consumed on board -- described as the best food yet prepared for space.

Role of Russia

One important detail given little attention in those accounts is Russia's role in the program. The spacecraft now in orbit is based on the Russian Soyuz. The Shenzhou can carry up to three astronauts.

The Chinese bought an assortment of Russian space gear in the first few years of Project 921, according to experts and published reports -- including a a system for docking in space, life-support technology, booster engines and astronaut suits.

Experts from Russia were involved in the program and, according to a Russian state news agency and other sources, at least some of the Chinese astronauts trained at the cosmonaut training center north of Moscow.

China also appears to have borrowed another lesson of the old Soviet space program by keeping tight control over information and publicity.

Unlike the United States, which made heroes of its astronauts even before they reached space and broadcast every success and catastrophe live, Chinese leaders have strictly limited coverage of their program.

Earlier failures

Leaders had reason for concern.

Several previous rocket launches unrelated to Shenzhou have failed at Jiuquan, causing an unknown number of deaths on the ground.

At least one of the unmanned Shenzhou flights is believed to have ended with a crash, possibly the result of a failed parachute, although details are sketchy because the government has never disclosed problems with the manned program.

But in China's monitored Internet forums, some Chinese anonymously expressed disappointment with the decision not to broadcast the launch live.

"The Chinese people can't face failure," one person wrote.

"It's not for secrecy. It's for fear of losing face," wrote another.

Yet another advanced this conspiracy theory: "The reason that it will not be broadcast live is that there's no one on the spacecraft at all."

Other ambitions

Chinese scientists have ambitions for a modest space station, a shuttle-like space plane and lunar probes.

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