China announces readiness to launch manned space flight
By Tim Johnson
Knight Ridder News Service
BEIJING -- Hoping to demonstrate its status as a rising global power, China confirmed Friday that it will launch a manned spacecraft into orbit sometime between Wednesday and Friday, becoming only the third nation to hurtle astronauts into the heavens.
In a brief statement carried by the official Xinhua News Agency, China said the Shenzhou V spacecraft would orbit the Earth 14 times before landing.
If all goes well, China will join an exclusive space-traveling club some four decades after the former Soviet Union and the United States accomplished the feat of putting humans into orbit.
Xinhua said the Shenzhou V spacecraft would lift off from the Jiuquan launch facility in the Gobi desert 900 miles west of Beijing and return to Earth at an undisclosed different location.
China has not yet identified the mission's crew. Xinhua said a crew had followed a strict regimen of tests and training and that all members passed a comprehensive drill.
Two channels on China's state television reportedly are preparing up to 10 hours of live coverage of the launch. State-run Chinese newspapers have been filled with stories about the launch, lifting the military secrecy that cloaks most of China's space activities, even reporting dissent in the scientific community about the cost of manned space missions.
The Shenzhou V is believed to be carrying reconnaissance and electronic intelligence-gathering equipment, as well as a bag of seeds for scientific purposes.
China denied Thursday that its space program has military as well as civilian goals, as the Pentagon hinted in an annual report issued in August. The Pentagon report said China's leaders probably viewed space-based weapons and missile defense systems, which the United States is pursuing, as "inevitabilities."
The space flight is slated to come immediately after China's leaders conclude a crucial Communist Party meeting to discuss economic reforms, suggesting that party leaders want to bask in an event sure to stoke strong feelings of national pride and burnish China's international luster.
"This [manned space mission] will be very strong in promoting the 'great power' image of China," said Shi Yinhong, an expert in international relations at People's University.
While relations between China and the United States, particularly in trade, are stronger than at any time in a generation, Washington is wary of Beijing's space activities and has shut China out of the International Space Station, a global endeavor involving 16 nations.
Former U.S. astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, who was part of the Apollo 11 lunar expedition, said he thought the United States should embrace China's growing expertise in space.
"We'd learn a little bit more about China's space plans if we extended a hand of welcome," Aldrin told the Web site http://www.space.com. "What does NASA have to lose?"
In the 1990s, China sought to build up an international business launching commercial satellites into space, but the program was virtually paralyzed in 1998 when the United States froze export licenses to China for satellites made with American parts out of concern that China was using U.S. parts to improve the accuracy of its ballistic missiles.