Wed, Oct 15, 2003 - Page 1 News List

China counting down to first manned space flight

NATIONAL PRIDE Chinese TV seems to have scuttled plans to broadcast the liftoff live, even though the nation's leaders are expected to watch it for themselves

REUTERS , BEIJING

China began the final countdown yesterday in its bid to become just the third nation to rocket a man into orbit, with clear skies forecast over the Gobi Desert launchpad where liftoff was due to come as soon as today.

But with the pride of a rising nation pinned to the mission, it was unclear whether China would risk allowing its 1.3 billion people to witness the launch live. Newspapers said state television had scuttled plans for live broadcast and station officials gave conflicting accounts of plans.

On Monday, mission control successfully simulated the launch of the Shenzhou V (神舟五號), or "Divine Ship," and was fuelling the spacecraft, the Lanzhou Morning Post, based in the province of Gansu, reported from the launch base in nearby Inner Mongolia.

Some of China's leaders were due to fly there to watch Communist China's bid to realize its decades-old space dreams, Hong Kong media said. Many leaders have been closeted in Beijing grappling with more earthly concerns, such as a harrowing rich-poor gap, at a Party Central Committee plenum.

Chinese President Hu Jin-tao (胡錦濤) was expected meet the astronaut chosen for the solo flight, whose identity had yet to be confirmed.

The top candidate was Yang Liwei (楊利偉), 38, son of a teacher and an official at an agricultural firm, raised in Suizhong county in the northeast "rustbelt" province of Liaoning, a local party official said.

"There's no final decision yet, but if he is announced as China's first astronaut of course we'll be very proud of him," he said by telephone.

He added that journalists from the People's Daily and China Youth Daily were waiting at the party offices to interview Yang after an expected announcement.

"It was expected around 5pm," he said.

Yang was an avid ice skater and swimmer who excelled in track and field in the army, his sister and brother said in an interview with Hong Kong's Wen Wei Po, adding his grades were fair but he did well in the sciences.

He earned around 10,000 yuan (US$1,208) a month, it said.

After months of secrecy, the official Xinhua news agency said last week the manned mission would blast off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Base between today and Friday and make 14 orbits, spending approximately 21 hours in space.

Meteorologists expect fair skies over Jiuquan on Wednesday and many Chinese were equally upbeat.

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