for National Geographic News
China successfully launched its first manned space mission today. Carrying a single yuhangyuan, the Chinese term for astronaut, the Szenzhou 5 rocket blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. It was to orbit Earth 14 times before returning.
"The successful launch of Shenzhou-5 is the glory of our great motherland," China's President Hu Jintao said after the launch was declared a success, according to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency. "The long-cherished space dream of the Chinese nation has finally come true," Hu Shixiang, deputy director-general of China's manned space flight program, told Xinhua.
China's first astronaut, 38-year-old Yang Liwei, said "I feel good," 34 minutes after the launch at 9 a.m. local time.
The launch had been shrouded in secrecy, despite the national pride associated with it. China has become the world's third space-faring nation, after the United States and the former Soviet Union.
Only a few, scattered details about the mission were offered by China's national Xinhua News Agency, and the name of the astronaut was not made official until after the launch. On Tuesday, the Communist Party's official newspaper reported that the government has decided not to broadcast the launch on live television.
Experts say the Chinese government was highly sensitive to any negative propaganda in case something went wrong with the mission. China used to broadcast satellite launches live on television, but stopped in 1995 after a rocket exploded soon after take-off, killing six people on the ground.
The secrecy surrounding the launch has also prompted questions about the ambitions of China's space program, which is believed to have strong military ties. While Chinese officials say their space forays will be peaceful, Asian neighbors worry that China may use its space technology for military purposes.
Most space analysts, however, believe international prestige is the main factor driving China's space program.
"There is a fundamental belief [among the Chinese] that this is something great nations do," said Roger D. Launius, chair of the division of space history at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. "There is a prestige that is accorded this activity. They want to be viewed as a great nation."
The Chinese space program is already one of the largest in the world with 250,000 people working on it. Officials will not say how much China spends each year on space research, but experts estimate it is more than two billion dollars (U.S.).
China planned to send yuhangyuans into space in the early 1970s. But the project ground to a halt after a failed coup against the Chinese government. Instead, China turned to satellite technology. It has launched four unmanned space missions to test the hardware for the manned flight.
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