CHINA TO LAUNCH FIRST MANNED SPACE-FLIGHT


2003-10-08
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Reports say blast-off likely Oct. 15

China will launch its first ever manned space mission Oct. 15, RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese services report. The mission will make a single orbit around the earth in a 90-minute flight.

"We have been told our live broadcast of the launch will be on the 15th. But we do not know the exact time of the launch on the day," a China Central Television news center official said.

Oct. 15 was already widely tipped as the big day, and state-run Phoenix TV, broadcast from Hong Kong, also quoted reliable sources as confirming this was the plan.

"Relevant sources said that upon close examination of the weather and other important elements, the preliminary launch date of the Shenzhou V has been set for Oct. 15," Phoenix said.

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. In Indonesia, at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders' summit, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said the Shenzhou V craft would take off with a human crew "soon, very soon."

The CCTV official said the craft would take off from a launch pad in Inner Mongolia with the Jiuquan Space Launch Center in northwestern Gansu province coordinating the historic event.

The center has three launch pads in the vicinity, and Shenzhou V will leave from the one some 200 kms (124 miles) north in Inner Mongolia, CCTV said. The facility was built in the 1960s as China's first ballistic missile and satellite launch center and has been used extensively in China's satellite and space program.

China appears capable of broadcasting the event live, according to Huang Dong, a military analyst based in Macao�noting that both Washington and Moscow aired live broadcasts of national leaders speaking with astronauts during their respective first-ever manned space flights.

"I think China has the technology to do it," Huang told RFA�s Mandarin service. "A live broadcast showing the images of the inside of the capsule will have great significance whether the launch is a success or failure."

When Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space in 1961, his flight lasted 108 minutes. Days later American Alan Shepard spent just 15 minutes on a suborbital flight.

Xie Guangxuan, an engineer who headed the unmanned Shenzhou III mission, now at the China Academy of Sciences, was quoted as saying the Shenzhou V flight would last around 90 minutes.

"As far as I know concerning the testing and checkups, all preparations for the launch of the Shenzhou at present are going smoothly," said Xie.

Media reports said just one astronaut will make the trip, selected from a team of 14. Four unmanned Shenzhou capsules have so far been been launched since 1999.

Sending people into space, and eventually to the Moon, is part of an integrated Chinese space program, experts say. Beijing's space schedule allows for the increasing use of satellites for weather watching, resource monitoring, and communications purposes.

But some U.S. observers say that a military space strategy is also being put in place, including quick access to orbit, lofting anti-satellites and the use of powerful ground-based lasers to blind spacecraft. They say the People's Liberation Army is trying to ensure it can deny use of the military high ground of space by a potential enemy. #####

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