China Puts Its First Astronaut in Space

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
October 15, 2003
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."

Divine Vessel

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.

Space analysts say the Szenzhou rocket is a bigger version of a Soviet-era spacecraft. The name means "divine vessel" or "magic vessel." The rocket, which will be launched by a Long March 2F booster, has an orbital module, a service module, and a passenger module that holds a single crew member.

The Szenzhou 5 will also be outfitted with an alarm system to avoid collisions between the craft and chunks of speeding space debris.

Three finalists have been selected, but it's presumed that the pilot was not named until shortly before the launch today. A Chinese official said that an early disclosure of the first manned mission crew would "cause a psychological strain on the yuhangyuan."

Experts had long speculated that October 15 would be a likely launch date, coming a day after a key Communist Party meeting in Beijing. But weather and solar activities will also dictate the time of the launch.

The Szenzhou 5 spacecraft is likely to orbit the Earth for around 21 hours and then land at a pre-selected area, probably in the Mongolian desert.

The orbital module, which has solar panels attached to it, will detach from Szenzhou 5 and remain behind in orbit as a mini-space station for six months.

Earlier this year, Chinese space official Zhang Qinqwei told the People's Daily newspaper that these modules will remain in space "to lay a foundation for China's second-step manned spaceflight project—forming a docking link between a spacecraft and another flight vehicle."

The spacecraft will reportedly also carry 2,200 grams of seeds as part of a long-standing Chinese program that seeks to develop new varieties of plants by exposing the seeds to space radiation and zero gravity.

Space Wars

More than 50 nations have national space programs, according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. Dozens of countries are racing to reach space before their neighbors do. India recently announced it will send a probe to orbit the moon by 2008.

Some of China's neighbors, particularly India and Japan, now worry that the Chinese space program will have military applications. The launch is bound to hasten Japan's ballistic missile defense program.

Many space programs, including China's, are sending satellites into space, which could be used to spy on neighbors. The unmanned Szenzhou 2, 3 and 4 are believed to have carried a military electronic-intelligence package.

Chinese officials have sought to downplay any fears of military use, and say they intend to expand China's exploration of space for peaceful means. A robotic mission to the moon could take place as early as 2006.

There are also plans to construct a space station, as well as human travel to the moon.

Advocates for space research welcome China's entry into space.

"This launch is significant to world space exploration because it adds one more significant player and opens up whole new avenues in cooperation or competition," said Bruce Betts, the director of projects at the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California.

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